Monday, March 23, 2015
The Court heard oral arguments today in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans involving a First Amendment challenge to the denial of a specialty license plate requested by the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.
As we noted when certiorari was granted, the Fifth Circuit's divided opinion, reversing the district judge, found that the denial violated the First Amendment as impermissible viewpoint and content discrimination. License plate schemes have been well-litigated: The Fourth Circuit recently held that North Carolina's provision of a "Choose Life" specialty license plate violated the First Amendment; the New Hampshire Supreme Court invalidated a vanity license plate regulation requiring "good taste"; a Michigan federal district judge similarly invalidated a refusal of specific letters on a vanity plate; and on remand from the Tenth Circuit, the design of the Oklahoma standard license plate was upheld.
First, there is the issue of whether the specialty license plate had become a traditional public forum. Justice Kennedy seemingly tended toward this view, noting - - - twice - - - that no one goes to parks anymore and so these license plates may be a new public forum for a new era.
Less specifically articulated was whether if there was a limited public forum in the license plates this could have any meaning at all because there were no real standards. Justice Ginsburg quickly asked the Texas Solicitor General, defending the constitutionality of the state scheme, whether it wasn't "nebulous." The number of specialty license plates approved and the very few disapproved was noted several times, again making it seem as if any designation was not at all clear.
The notion of government speech was raised at numerous points, echoing the opinion of Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry Smith who had dissented and contended that the doctrine of government speech articulated in the Court's unanimous Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009) controls: there is no meaningful distinction between the privately placed monuments in Summum and the license plates in Texas.
Yet Justice Sotomayor suggested that this might be "hybrid speech," asking counsel for the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans whether this might not be the "reverse" of Wooley v. Maynard (1977): why should the State be compelled to put something on its license plates that it disapproves?
That the state might be seen as endorsing problematical messages surfaced repeatedly, including this discussion with counsel for the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans:
JUSTICE GINSBURG: Suppose suppose the message the the applicant said, we want this design, and the design is a swastika. Is that speech that does does the the whoever is in charge of it of the license plate, do they have to accept - - -
MR. GEORGE: I don't believe the State can discriminate against the people who want to have that design - - -
JUSTICE GINSBURG: So they could have the swastika. And suppose somebody else says, I want to have "Jihad" on my license plate. That's okay, too?
MR. GEORGE: Vegan?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: Jihad.
MR. GEORGE: Jihad. Jihad on the license plate? Can be there is obviously a court of appeal a district court from Ohio in which "Infidels" was held to be the State
JUSTICE KENNEDY: What is your answer in this case as to Justice Ginsburg's hypothetical? Yes or no, must the State put those symbols or messages on the plates at the request of the citizen? Yes or no?
MR. GEORGE: Yes.
This prospect seemed worrisome. But seemingly equally worrisome was the prospect of absolute government discretion manifested by the recurring hypothetical of a government allowing "Vote Republican" but not "Vote Democratic" on the specialty plates, a situation that is arguably consistent with Summum's interpretation of government speech. Perhaps Sotomayor's suggested "hybrid speech" may be a compromise. Or less likely, the Court could further clarify public forum and limited (designated) public forum doctrine.