Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.

PETITIONER: John Walker, III, et al.
RESPONDENT: Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., et al.
LOCATION: Texas Department of Motor Vehicles

DOCKET NO.: 14-144
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 576 US (2015)
GRANTED: Dec 05, 2014
ARGUED: Mar 23, 2015
DECIDED: Jun 18, 2015

ADVOCATES:
Roger James George, Jr. - for the respondents
Scott A. Keller - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In August 2009, the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (Texas SCV), a non-profit organization that works to preserve the memory and reputation of soldiers who fought for the confederacy in the Civil War, applied to have a new specialty license plate issued by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TDMV). The proposed license plate had two confederate flags on it: one in the organization's logo, and one faintly making up the background of the plate. The TDMV had a policy stating that it "may refuse to create a new specialty license plate if the design might be offensive to any member of the public." The board in charge of approving new specialty plates received multiple negative comments from the public regarding this plate and ultimately voted to deny Texas SCV's application.

Texas SCV sued in federal district court claiming their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The TDMV argued that the Free Speech Clause did not apply in this case because license plates are a form of government speech; therefore, they were within their rights to choose which messages and views they wanted to express on the plates. The district court disagreed and held that the plates were private, non-governmental speech, and that the TDMV's denial was a reasonable, content-based restriction of speech in a non-public forum. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and held that TDMV's denial was a form of viewpoint discrimination that "discriminated against Texas SCV's view that the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage."

Question

1. Do specialty license plates constitute government speech that is immune from any requirement of viewpoint neutrality?

2. Does preventing the confederate flag from appearing on license plates constitute viewpoint discrimination?

Media for Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument, March 23, 2015 in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 18, 2015 in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has our opinion this morning in case 14-144, Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Texas issues both ordinary license plates and specialty license plates.

Now those who want the State to issue a particular specialty plate can propose to the State, a plate design which is a slogan and sometimes a graphic design, and in this case the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board rejected a proposed plate design that was submitted to them.

The design featured the Confederate battle flag.

The Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the Board claiming that the rejection of their design violated the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause.

The Court of Appeals agreed, said it did violate the clause, we here review that determination.

We hold that Texas’ rejection of the Confederate flag design does not violate the First Amendment.

Our analysis closely follows the analysis set forth in an earlier case of this court Pleasant Grove City v. Summum.

In that case we held a city “accepting a privately donated monument putting it on a city property” was engaging in what we have called government’s speech, speech that government has broad leeway to decide when, whether and how to express.

In reaching that conclusion in the Summum case the Court considered the history of the government program and its purposes reflected on whether observers would recognize the government to be speaking and examine the government’s control over the messages conveyed.

Those same factors lead us to conclude in this case that Texas’ specialty license plate designs fall into the same category namely government speech.

The history of license plates and we have a long history of the license plates in the world, I guess, shows that states have long used license plates in this country to convey government messages.

The speech appears on what looks like essentially a government issued identification such that a reasonable observer would associate the speech with the government indeed a driver could just as easily if he wanted to, express the same message just by putting it on a bumper sticker next to the license plate.

Why would that driver want to put say a flag on the license plate rather than on the bumper?

Perhaps, because placing it on the license plate would suggest at least to some observers that it is the State that is conveying the message that the flag embodies.

An additional consideration is that the Texas statutory scheme gives the State final approval authority and thus control over specialty license plate designs.

We also recognize as we have previously held that the First Amendment limits a State’s authority to require a private party to display a license plate containing a government message with which the private party disagrees.

Taking that earlier case together with today's case produces a kind of legal symmetry.

Just as Texas cannot force a private citizen to convey on his or her license plate a message with which he or she does not agree.

So the Sons of Confederate Veterans cannot force Texas to convey on its license plates a message with which the State does not agree.

The judgment of the Fifth Circuit is reversed.

Justice Alito has written a dissenting opinion in which he is joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Kennedy.

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