The Supreme Court will review whether Texas’s rejection of a proposed license plate featuring the Confederate flag violated the free speech rights of the group that wanted the special plates.
Courts are divided over whether government may choose among the political messages requested for state-issued plates or whether such messages should be recognized as the speech of the motorist and entitled to more protection.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said Texas officials were wrong to turn down a request from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The requested plate would have featured the group’s logo: a Confederate battle flag framed on all four sides by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.”
After several votes, the board of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles turned down the request because it found “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.”
A district court upheld the decision, but the appeals panel reversed it.
The board “discriminated” against the group’s view “that the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage,” Circuit Judge Edward C. Prado wrote.
“We understand that some members of the public find the Confederate flag offensive. But that fact does not justify the board’s decision; this is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect against.”
Prado said it would be clear that the license plate represented the speech of the motorist, not Texas.
Circuit Court Judge Jerry Smith disagreed. The association between license plates and the states that issue them “could hardly be stronger,” Smith wrote. “It follows that the law allows Texas to choose whether it wishes its name to be associated with any criticism associated with the Confederate flag — whether it wishes the state to be linked to that flag wherever Texas cars are driven.”
The Supreme Court has not decided whether to hear a second, similar appeal from North Carolina. A federal appeals court in that case blocked the state from issuing plates saying “Choose Life” because the state would not grant a request to issue a plate with a message in favor of abortion rights.
Some states had decided against offering specialty plates as a result of legal fights.
The case the court took up is Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. It will be heard in the spring and decided before the court adjourns its current term in June.
The court also agreed to consider a Louisiana death row inmate’s claim that he should not be executed because he is mentally disabled.
Kevan Brumfield was convicted in the shooting death of off-duty Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Betty Smothers in 1993. After a state court said a separate hearing was not needed to decide whether Brumfield was intellectually disabled, a federal judge granted such a hearing.
After hearing evidence, he agreed with Brumfield’s attorneys and said the man was protected from execution by a 2002 Supreme Court ruling.
A panel of the 5th Circuit said that the state court had done nothing wrong and that the federal judge should not have granted the hearing.
The case is Brumfield v. Cain.