A Confederate flag flies in Georgia in 2014. The Supreme Court ruled a state can't be forced to put it on a license plate. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In America, you can pin a Confederate flag to your car, you stick Confederate flag decals on your car and you can paint your car like a giant Confederate flag on wheels.

But the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that you can't demand that your state government to put it on your license plate.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court decided that the state of Texas can refuse to approve a specialty license plate with the Confederate flag.  The license plate is a clear example of government speech, which doesn't fall under the the 1st Amendment's promise of free speech, the justices ruled.

There were a lot of touchy questions for the justices to wrangle with to get to this decision. Here's the case explained:

The background

Texas offers more than 450 specialty license plates for people who pay extra money to get them. (Specialty plates have been big money-makers for political parties, but that's another story.)

[The murky (and apparently widespread) use of license plates as political favors]

In Texas, you can buy a license plate supporting your college, calling for water rights or even advertising hamburger chains, the AP's Mark Sherman reports. In 2009, the nonprofit Sons of Confederate Veterans in Texas applied to create a specialty plate bearing the Confederate flag.

A draft of the license plate showed the organization's logo, which is basically a Confederate flag, along with a faint Confederate flag in the background.


The proposed license plate. (Reuters/Texas Department of Motor Vehicles)

In a surprising decision, Texas's license board denied the application after a lengthy and lively public comment section. The board decided the plate would offend a lot of Texans.

"Why should we as Texans want to be reminded of a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, mass murder?" asked state Sen. Royce West (D) in a 2011 public hearing about the plates, according to NPR's Nina Totenberg.

The Confederate Veterans group sued, claiming the state had violated their free speech.

Of course, this doesn't mean states are now banned from using the Confederate flag on plates -- just that they can opt not to use it. And indeed, at least eight other states allow the Confederate flag on a license plate, the AP notes.

And it doesn't mean Confederate history won't still be a part of the Texas government. The veterans group's lawyer, R. James George Jr.,  pointed out to NPR there are Confederate battle re-enactments on Texas capitol grounds, there are monuments in the state honoring Confederate veterans and, apparently, there are Confederate trinkets you can buy in the state capitol's gift shop.

The decision

The court decided the state of Texas did not violate anyone's free speech in denying a Confederate flag license plate, because the license plate doesn't fall under free speech. They made several mini-decisions to get there.

First, the justices had to decide whether license plates are examples of government speech or whether they represent the speech of the person who bought the plate.  Free speech advocates wanted them to decide for the people driving the car. Lower courts were split on whether license plates belong to the person driving them and therefore fall under free speech, as the Post's Robert Barnes wrote.

The Supreme Court decided license plates fall under government speech, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer in the majority opinion:

The governmental nature of the plates is clear from their faces: the State places the name “TEXAS” in large letters across the top of every plate.

Next, the Supreme Court had to decide how much free speech protections government has. And the 1st Amendment doesn't really apply to the government, the justices decided. The Free Speech Clause in the 1st Amendment protects people from government trying to regulate their speech, not the other way around.

The decision "confirms that citizens cannot compel the government to speak, just as the government cannot compel citizens to speak," Breyer wrote. The Supreme Court's only African-American justice, Clarence Thomas, notably split with his conservative colleagues and joined the court's four liberal justices for this opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the decision "threatens private speech that the government finds displeasing."

Finally, the court made a point that it's not like you can't have a Confederate flag on your car anymore. Here's the Huffington Post's justice correspondent with a screenshot from the decision:

So is this the end of the Confederate flag in Texas? Not hardly. But it is a significant decision when it comes to the flag and our 1st Amendment rights.