Today, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas doesn't have to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to use a vanity license plate showing the Confederate flag.
The suit was prompted by the state's rejection of a license plate designed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It looked like this:
According to the board of the Texas DMV, the design was rejected because "a significant portion of the public associate the confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.” The conclusion was reached after the department had opened the issue up to public debate, and was, not surprisingly, bombarded with negative feedback.
Outraged, the Confederate group appealed the decision. And the argument went to the Supreme Court because, as The New Republic explains, the law in this arena is so sloppy:
"Recently, North Carolina was chastised by a federal appeals court for approving a “Choose Life” license plate while denying a pro-choice plate… But in Oklahoma, under a slightly different doctrine, a federal judge ruled that an image of a Native American holding a bow and arrow—standard on every plate—was not a religious message that compelled drivers to espouse a particular view."
The question here is whose First Amendment rights are on the line—is the state suppressing an individual's right to express himself using his vehicle? Or, are First Amendment rights off the table because a license plate is the government's space, rather than the individual's? The court ruled the latter. SCOTUSblog explains:
"The Court, dividing five to four, ruled that the messages on those plates are 'government speech,' and, as such, the First Amendment imposes no direct curb on the content of that message."
The ruling means that the constitution doesn't protect individuals or private groups who want full freedom of expression on their vanity plates. And, The New York Times explains, the handful of other states — like Alabama, Tennessee and, notably, South Carolina —that have confederate flags on plates can now refuse to put them there.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans don't agree, per a statement from their commander in chief Charles Kelly Barrow, which was posted to the group's Facebook page:
"It is unfortunate that the Court has not extended the same sense of inclusion, diversity and tolerance to the estimated 70 million Americans of Confederate descent that is the right of every other American."
The ruling felt especially poignant today as images apparently showing suspected killer Dylann Roof posing on a car with a Confederate flag vanity plate:
Roof allegedly killed 9 black churchgoers in a historic Charleston church on Wednesday night, in an attack authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
South Carolina has long-insisted on flying the Confederate flag—which is still flying at the state's Capitol today. It's hard to see how that decision remains defensible today.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.