Court up­holds li­cense plate lim­its

But jus­tices strike down an Ari­zona city’s re­stric­tions on cer­tain public signs.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By David G. Sav­age david.sav­age@latimes.com Twit­ter: @DavidGSav­age

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court de­cided Thurs­day that states may re­strict the mes­sages ap­pear­ing on spe­cialty li­cense plates, rul­ing that Texas author­i­ties did not vi­o­late the 1st Amend­ment when they re­fused to is­sue a plate bear­ing a Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag.

In a 5-4 de­ci­sion, the jus­tices said a state-is­sued li­cense plate is “gov­ern­ment speech,” not the pri­vate speech of a mo­torist.

“When the gov­ern­ment speaks, it is not barred by the free-speech clause from de­ter­min­ing what it says,” Jus­tice Stephen G. Breyer said for the ma­jor­ity.

The de­ci­sion frees state of­fi­cials to per­mit or refuse po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial plates with mes­sages re­lated to abor­tion, pol­i­tics or the en­vi­ron­ment.

In a sep­a­rate free-speech de­ci­sion Thurs­day, the court made it harder for cities to reg­u­late public signs, rul­ing of­fi­cials may not dis­crim­i­nate against signs be­cause of their con­tent.

The jus­tices voted 9 to 0 to strike down an un­usual or­di­nance in Gil­bert, Ariz., that had pro­hib­ited the Good News Com­mu­nity Church from post­ing signs to ad­ver­tise the lo­ca­tion of its Sun­day ser­vices. At the same time, the town al­lowed large po­lit­i­cal signs along­side the same roads.

Jus­tice Clarence Thomas played a cru­cial role in both 1st Amend­ment cases. In the Texas case, he cast a rare fifth vote on the side of the court’s four lib­er­als to re­ject the Con­fed­er­ate li­cense plate. While Thomas regularly sup­ports 1st Amend­ment claims, he dis­sented alone in 2003 when the jus­tices ruled that mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan had a freespeech right to burn a cross in a Vir­ginia farm field.

Thomas wrote the court’s opin­ion in the Ari­zona case, say­ing “con­tent-based re­stric­tions” on signs al­most al­ways vi­o­late the 1st Amend­ment. Cities may reg­u­late the size of signs, he said, but they may not fa­vor po­lit­i­cal signs over com­mer­cial signs or vice versa.

All nine jus­tices agreed the Gil­bert city or­di­nance was f lawed, but they dis­agreed on what sort of guid­ance to of­fer to en­sure fu­ture sign reg­u­la­tions are le­gal.

The con­ser­va­tive jus­tices joined Thomas’ opin­ion in Reed vs. Gil­bert, but three of its lib­er­als, in a con­cur­ring opin­ion, said he had gone too far. Jus­tice Elena Ka­gan said it had “cast a con­sti­tu­tional pall on rea­son­able reg­u­la­tions” of signs.

The Na­tional League of Cities voiced alarm. The de­ci­sion “wreaks havoc on the abil­ity of lo­cal gov­ern­ments to im­ple­ment sign code reg­u­la­tions that are re­spon­sive to the needs of the com­mu­nity,” said Clarence An­thony, the league’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

But the Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom, which filed the suit on be­half of the Good News Com­mu­nity Church, said the court had up­held the prin­ci­ple that “speech dis­crim­i­na­tion is wrong,” re­gard­less of the city’s rea­sons, said se­nior coun­sel David Cort­man, adding: “It’s still the gov­ern­ment play­ing fa­vorites, and that’s un­con­sti­tu­tional.”

The spe­cialty li­cense plate de­ci­sion fol­lowed nu- mer­ous le­gal dis­putes over the last decade as more states al­lowed pri­vate groups to spon­sor spe­cial plates. Mo­torists who are will­ing to pay a bit ex­tra can dis­play the plate of their choice. Most com­mon are mes­sages like “Keep Texas Beau­ti­ful” or “Moth­ers Against Drunk Driv­ing.”

Con­tro­versy arose in some states over abor­tion­re­lated plates stat­ing “Choose Life.” In re­sponse, abor­tion rights sup­port­ers asked for plates that would say “Re­spect Choice.”

Be­fore Thurs­day, most lower courts had said the 1st Amend­ment pro­hib­ited states from cen­sor­ing spe­cialty plates be­cause of their mes­sage. The Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans sued in 2009 af­ter Texas of­fi­cials re­fused to is­sue a spe­cialty plate bear­ing a Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag. The Con­fed­er­ate Sons won in lower courts.

But while Breyer said mo­torists are free to put their fa­vored mes­sage on a bumper sticker, they do not have a free-speech right to re­quire the state to adopt their mes­sage on a state-is­sued plate. Jus­tices Ruth Bader Gins­burg, So­nia So­tomayor and Elena Ka­gan joined Breyer and Thomas. The case was Walker vs. Texas Di­vi­sion of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans.

In dis­sent­ing, Jus­tice Sa­muel A. Al­ito Jr. said peo­ple would surely know the mes­sage on a spe­cialty plate rep­re­sented the “pri­vate speech” of the car owner, not the gov­ern­ment.

“The state of Texas has con­verted ... its spe­cialty plates into lit­tle mo­bile bill­boards on which mo­torists can dis­play their own mes­sages,” he said. It is “bla­tant view­point dis­crim­i­na­tion” for of­fi­cials to re­ject one group’s mes­sage as “of­fen­sive,” he said.

Chief Jus­tice John G. Roberts Jr. and Jus­tices An­tonin Scalia and An­thony M. Kennedy joined his dis­sent.

Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Pax­ton said the rul­ing “con­firms that cit­i­zens can­not com­pel the gov­ern­ment to speak, just as the gov­ern­ment can­not com­pel cit­i­zens to speak.”

How­ever, Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union Le­gal Di­rec­tor Steven Shapiro called the rul­ing “a step back­ward for the 1st Amend­ment … by al­low­ing states to cen­sor pri­vate speech they find of­fen­sive.”

Still pend­ing be­fore the court is a re­lated North Carolina case. The state is­sued a “Choose Life” plate, and abor­tion rights ad­vo­cates sued, ask­ing for a “Re­spect Choice” plate. The state lost in a lower court, but ap­pealed.

Eric Gay As­so­ci­ated Press

A MON­U­MENT to Hood’s Texas Brigade, fore­ground, at the Texas Capi­tol in Austin, in­cludes the Con­fed­er­ate f lag. The jus­tices ruled 5 to 4 that li­cense plates are “gov­ern­ment speech” sub­ject to state ap­proval.

THE PRO­POSED de­sign for the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans li­cense plate re­jected by Texas of­fi­cials.

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