Case Walker V. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans: a Courtroom Analysis

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In-Depth Case Analysis

Many people around the United States, especially in the South, were outraged following the court’s decision in the case Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans to not allow the group to have a picture of the Confederate flag on their Texas license plates. In the state of Texas, drivers are given the choice to have a general license plate that has a picture of the state or a specialty plate with a slogan and/or graphic of their choice that is subject to approval by the Department of Motor Vehicles (White). The Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a suit against the Department of Motor Vehicles Board contending that the Board violated the Free Speech Clause of the 1st Amendment by denying their specialty plate application (White). Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans deals primarily with the Government Speech Doctrine and the Free Speech Clause of the 1st Amendment. The court’s main focus is to answer the question of whether the designs and slogans on government-issued license plates are considered to be government or private speech (White). If it is ruled to be private speech, the court is expected to decide whether or not Texas discriminated a specific viewpoint by denying the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ license plate design. In a 5-4 court ruling for Walker and the Board, Justice Breyer writes in the court’s opinion that the slogans and pictures on Texas license plates are indeed considered to be government speech (White). With this ruling, the court also decides that the state government did not violate the Free Speech Clause in denying the Confederate plate design.

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Justice Breyer explains in the court’s decision that the case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum set the precedent used in the ruling. In Utah, a religious organization called Summum requested that Pleasant Grove City put a monument representing their spiritual beliefs in the city park. Pleasant Grove City denied the request because they believed the viewpoints of Summum did not correctly represent the same ideals that Pleasant Grove held (Pleasant). The courts ruled in favor of the Utah city because the monuments were government owned and therefore considered as government speech, which is not subject to strict scrutiny. Justice Breyer writes that the court based their conclusion for Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans off of Justice Alito’s decision in the Pleasant Grove City v. Summum case (Pleasant). Breyer explains that, “when a government entity arranges for the construction of a monument, it does so because it wishes to convey some thought or instill some feeling in those who see the structure” (White). With this thought, Breyer compares the government monuments in Pleasant Grove City to the government-issued license plates in Texas. He states that Texas denied the Confederate flag design because while it was offensive for some, the state government did not want to come across as being associated with a specific controversial viewpoint. The only reason Texas would be forced to approve the design is if they have previously allowed a plate that apposed the Confederacy (White). The decision also sates that because the license plates are government-issued, they as a result belong to the government. Because of this, the state has full control of what is printed on them.

I agree with the court’s ruling that the state was not discriminatory towards the Sons of Confederate Veterans because the plates are not subject to private speech. The court justices based their conclusion on the historical context of license plates, the observer’s reasonable interpretation of the potential messages displayed, and the effective control that the state exerts over the design selection. I believe that the function of license plates is not to serve as a public forum of private speech, rather for governmental identification by law enforcement (White). Anything that is printed on the plate is owned by the government and bears the state’s name directly above. The state does not want to be explicitly associated with the potential conflicting ideas on a specialty plate, and therefore feels the need to monitor through an application (White). In my opinion, this is perfectly acceptable and I think that the court answered the questions at hand very respectfully.

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