Specialty License Plates: Government Or Private Speech?

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is suing the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. This follows the DMV's refusal last month to allow a specialty plate with the confederate flag. The group claims that decision violates the First Amendment: right to free speech, and the Fourteenth Amendment: guarantee of equal protection under the law. This case will likely hinge on whether specialty plates are considered government speech, or private speech.

Previous court rulings have been inconsistent on whether specialty license plates speak for the government, or for the groups and individuals who sponsor the plates.  If the plates are government speech, there can be tight restrictions on what get puts on them.  If they’re private speech, then pretty much anything goes. 

Charles “Rocky” Rhodes is a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law.  He says states with specialty plate programs try to have it both ways.

“They want to open these programs up to as many groups as possible, because obviously, it’s a source of revenue for the government.  And, so, so the more they open up the programs, the more it seems this is private speech. If the government kept real strict control over all aspects of the program, then they would have a stronger argument that they should be able to restrict what goes on each plate.”

Rhodes says the DMV’s approval this week of a plate that reads “One State Under God” could actually help the Confederate group.

“And when you allow other groups to design their plates in the manner that they choose, then you’re distinguishing based on our viewpoints, our messages, our ideas, and that, you cannot do.”

Nine other states have approved Confederate plates.  Three of them did so after the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued.  The group filed its complaint against the Texas DMV in U.S. District Court in Austin on Thursday.   Rhodes says the question of whether specialty license plates are government speech, or a form of private speech may have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.


David Pitman

David Pitman

Host, Morning Edition

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