DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now a debate over free speech and how it applies to cars. The U.S. Supreme Court is focusing on this today. On the road, you might notice some vehicles have specialty license plates that look different. Well, a group or individual would have requested the special plates from a government agency, like the DMV. The question is, can the government veto a message, refuse a design, that's offensive to some people? Case in point, a Confederate flag. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The specialty or vanity plate at the center of today's case was proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Texas division. It featured a square Confederate battle flag, along with the organization's name. Texas produces specialty plates for a fee, but the plate design must first be approved by the state Motor Vehicles board. And the Confederate vets plate generated considerable controversy. Here, for instance, was State Senator Royce West at a public hearing in 2011.
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ROYCE WEST: Why should we as Texans want to be reminded of legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, mass murder?
TOTENBERG: But Granvel Block of the Sons of Confederate Veterans defended the proposed plate.
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GRANVEL BLOCK: To expect the Sons of Confederate Veterans to refrain from the use of our federally approved logo on the specialty plate would be as unreasonable as expecting the University of Texas to remove their logo from a plate because Texas A&M graduates didn't care for it.
TOTENBERG: After several votes, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board rejected the proposed plate, finding that a significant portion of the public associate the Confederate flag with organizations that demean or express hatred for minorities. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued, contending that the state of Texas violated the organization's free speech rights. A federal appeals court agreed, and the state appealed to the Supreme Court, which hears arguments in the case today. The state of Texas maintains that private groups cannot commandeer the machinery of government to convey a message that the government doesn't want to associate with. Former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell.
JONATHAN MITCHELL: The plaintiffs have every right to festoon their cars with bumper stickers or other images that display the Confederate battle flag. But they can't compel the state of Texas to propagate the Confederate battle flag by displaying it on state-issued license plates.
TOTENBERG: The Sons of Confederate Veterans counter that Texas, by statute, has a policy of honoring their forebears. Specifically, there's a state holiday honoring Confederate veterans.
R. JAMES GEORGE: The lawyers working on this case get Confederate Heroes Day off.
TOTENBERG: That's R. James George, the lawyer representing the Confederate group. And there's more, he notes. There are Confederate battle reenactments on the Capitol grounds, monuments honoring Confederate veterans and the Capitol gift shop sells Confederate memorabilia. Therefore, as he puts it...
GEORGE: The Department of Motor Vehicles does not have the authority to second guess the legislature on whether or not to honor Confederate veterans, since the legislature has already decided that the other way.
TOTENBERG: Beyond that, George contends that the Constitution does not allow the government to ban certain speech simply because it's offensive. That's a proposition that former Texas Solicitor General Mitchell rejects when the speaker is the state.
MITCHELL: If the rule's going to be no viewpoint discrimination, there wouldn't be a basis really for us to turn down anyone. Everything would have to come in - swastikas, sacrilege, overt racism - you name it.
TOTENBERG: For governments large and small, drawing these lines is fairly common, whether the message is on a license plate or a proposed monument in a public park or even on a brick purchased for a public pathway or memorial. In a country that loves its cars, of course, license plates are enormously important.
Nearly 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not require drivers to put license plates on their cars that carry an ideological message they disagree with - in that case, Jehovah's Witnesses in New Hampshire objected to license plates that bore the state motto Live Free or Die. In Monday's case, the question is reversed, testing whether the state may reject some messages for specialty license plates. A decision in the case is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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