What the Supreme Court Should Have Said in the Confederate Flag Texas License Plate Case

Posted in: Constitutional Law

Display of the Confederate battle flag on government-owned property has certainly gotten a lot of attention of late. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 a few weeks ago, in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., that Texas could, consistent with the First Amendment, reject a specialty license plate design submitted by a non-profit entity due to the design’s prominent use of the Confederate battle flag, even though Texas had approved a disparate array of some 350 other designs submitted by various individuals and organizations depicting messages ranging from “I’d Rather Be Golfing” to the names of a number of (out-of-state) universities to “MIGHTY FINE” to “GET IT SOLD WITH RE/MAX.”

And, in the wake of the Charleston church shootings that occurred a day before Walker was handed down, there have been calls made and steps taken by (Republican as well as Democrat) elected leaders to remove the Confederate battle symbol from statehouses in places like Alabama and South Carolina.

Interestingly, the latter episode sheds light on how the Court should have handled the former—the Walker dispute. In short, the Court should have treated Walker more as a Confederate battle flag case, and less as a license plate case.

Why Justice Breyer’s Majority Opinion In Walker Is Unconvincing

Many able analysts, including some of my fellow Verdict columnists writing in other venues, have exposed some of the major shortcomings of Justice Breyer’s majority opinion, which holds that specialty license plates in Texas are “government speech,” such that the government is largely free to pick and choose—even on the basis of viewpoint—which messages shall be allowed on specialty plates mounted on Texas-registered vehicles. Justice Breyer’s opinion gives a few reasons why the Court believes specialty plates should be treated as government speech. First is that states have historically used license plates as a means of promoting government messages—such as a state’s motto or some iconic image of the state which its leaders want viewers to think of when the state comes to mind. Fair enough, but Justice Breyer is relying here on a prior era, and one in which Texas (and other states) had but a single, or a few, messages it allowed on any of the plates registered in the State. By opening up its license plate regime and approving over 350 disparate messages, Texas has changed the essential purpose (beyond identification of the car’s owner) of the license plate platform from government speech to private speech. And this is not a phenomenon unique to license plates. There might be a lot of public properties that once were used substantially for government speech, but that have been converted into limited or designated or nonpublic fora (where the government is no longer free to discriminate against particular viewpoints) by the government’s decision to open up the property so widely. And it is no response to a claim of improper viewpoint discrimination in any of these kinds of fora to say that the property was originally used for government speech.

The second argument Justice Breyer makes is that license plates are closely associated or identified with the state in the public’s mind. Justice Breyer adds that “a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intend[s] to convey to the public that the State had endorsed the message. If not, the individual could simply display . . . a bumper sticker.” Again, that might have been true of Texas license plates in an early era, but as Justice Alito’s withering dissent points out, no remotely reasonable viewers would ever actually think, after driving Texas roads for even a short time, that Texas really supports messages like “Go [Michigan State] Spartans,” or “Roll [Alabama] Tide Roll.” Or that the person whose plate bears one of these messages actually chose the plate design over a bumper sticker in order to obtain a state imprimatur (as opposed to preferring a specialty plate over a sticker because of the permanence and cleanliness of a plate, and to avoid any stigma tied to the use of bumper stickers.) I also find it interesting that questions such as these are empirical ones, and yet the Court makes broad findings in this regard without any (easily obtainable) evidence. (This lack of empirical input concerning public perceptions was also a feature of another First Amendment case, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, about which I wrote a column six weeks ago).

A Better Framing of the Issues Implicated by Walker

In spite of its analytic weaknesses, Justice Breyer’s opinion arrives at a result that many observers, on and off the Court, find intuitively correct. Can the Lone Star State really be forced to have the word “TEXAS” that runs accross the top of every license plate in the State appear just a few inches from the Confederate battle flag symbol? Walker, it is worth noting, was a rare case in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four “liberal” Justices to create a very unlikely 5-4 majority. Odd lineups like this usually suggest that something interesting is going on, but what might be the key to unlocking Walker?

For me, the critical fact in the case is one to which the Court gave virtually no attention—that the symbol at issue is not just an offensive one (representing, as it does, slavery, rebellion, and a combination of the two, whether or not it stands for other things as well.) It is a symbol that originated as government speech by, among other Confederate states, the State of Texas, and that is thus linked to those state governments, including Texas, who are responsible for its prominence and its (ugly) messages. The flag was adopted and used in battle by Confederate states from late 1861 until the fall of the Confederacy, and then utilized extensively by racist governors and other officials to resist desegregation during the Civil Rights movement. So even if Texas were required to permit racial slurs on specialty plates (a matter about which I’m not sure – perhaps Texas, because of its history concerning race, has a strong interest in separating itself from any racist message that, if attributed to the state, might raise equal protection problems), the present case is different: the Confederate battle flag is worse in this regard than a racial slur; it is akin to a racial slur that was adopted and previously used as a state’s motto.

Because Texas has a distinctive association with use of the Confederate flag, it has a distinctive (and non-censorial) reason to want to avoid improper attribution on its property, including its license plates. I am not saying that government owns the intellectual property rights to control the use of flag symbols—the famous Texas v. Johnson case invalidating a law prohibiting flag-burning rightly rejected that idea. Rather, because the risk of misattribution is greater with respect to the use on government property of symbols that had formerly been used by the government itself than it is with respect to other messages, the government has a correspondingly stronger reason (other than censorship) to regulate.

For example, if New Hampshire changed its motto from the traditional “Live Free or Die” message that has been appearing on its license plates for decades (and that was the subject of the other famous Supreme Court case involving a license plate, Wooley v. Maynard) because the State no longer embraced that principle, and it had a specialty plate scheme in which an applicant wanted that creed to physically appear near the words “NEW HAMPSHIRE,” the State would have a strong interest in rejecting that design to avoid any confusion.

If the approach I offer here had been the basis of the majority’s decision in Walker, various problems that Justice Breyer’s opinion creates going forward would have been avoided. If Texas specialty plates really are “government speech,” then how can the State approve and allow the design (which it has) bearing the words “Knights of Columbus,” a distinctively Catholic fraternal service organization? If people identify that design with lawmakers in Austin, isn’t there an Establishment Clause problem? And if the license plates are government (rather than private) speech, then Texas can reject a design bearing the words “Pro-Choice” even though it has already approved one bearing the words “Choose Life.” Does that kind of asymmetry make sense?

It may well be that the rationale I suggest today could, if adopted, mean that some states (i.e., those particularly associated with the Confederacy or racism) would have more latitude than others to reject the Confederate flag on specialty plate designs, and that the rejection by some states (that lack the historical association) would look like censorship, pure and simple. But even if that is true, we should remember that other equality-based constitutional doctrines are similarly contextual. For example, a jurisdiction that has engaged in racial discrimination may have more latitude to engage in race-based remedial action than one that hasn’t. The “government speech” rationale adopted by the Court may seem to create a cleaner line than the test I offer here, but in the long run it is (I suspect) less honest and will be more problematic in future disputes.