Things The NY Times Finds Important: Free Speech On License Plates

Following in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there has been quite a bit of discussion regarding freedom of expression, ranging the gamut from total expression to waffling to “yeah, but”. What concerns the NY Times?

A License to Say Anything?

SPECIALTY license plates — which bear the logo of a college or a sports team, or a slogan like “Save Our Seas” or “Stop Child Abuse” — bring in lots of money for state governments, as well as the schools, nonprofit groups, professional organizations and other entities that sponsor them. But these vehicular tags have also become a new frontier in debates over freedom of speech.

This is the Big Opinion Piece of the day, highlighted at the top of the opinion pages in the spot for the primary piece of the day. License plates.

The United States Supreme Court is hearing a lawsuit by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It wants Texas to issue a specialty plate showing the Confederate battle flag, which a state panel rejected. The group argues that if Texas allows plates that express some opinions, it also must allow the battle flag, even if the symbol offends many people. Anything less, the group says, amounts to discrimination against its viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment.

A similar case from North Carolina might also go up to the Supreme Court. In 2011, the State Legislature approved a specialty plate with the slogan “Choose Life.” Those who seek this specialized plate pay $25, $10 of which goes to the state’s highway fund and $15 of which goes to a pregnancy counseling organization. But when the Legislature refused to issue an abortion-rights plate, the American Civil Liberties Union sued.

The actual piece is not a bad one, providing interesting discourse without being uber biased, and takes the position that the Confederate Flag plate is improper, while the Choose Life one is A-OK, concluding that while a citizen has the choice to put a particular plate on their vehicle, people may assume that the State approves of the message. For writers Corey Brettschneider and Nelson Tebbe, the use of the Confederate battle flag is just too much, being an “An implied endorsement of a racist message”.

Furthermore, the state has an interest in disallowing certain messages on personalized plates. And the do. The even rescind some plates after people realize what the message means.

Of course, let’s not forget that the NY Times refused to publish any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Anyhow, regardless of taking a minor issue and magnifying it on the pages of what is considered the leading American newspaper, and one of the most important worldwide, perhaps license plates have gone too far. Here in North Carolina there are 156 specialized plates to choose from. Schools, sports, military, fraternities, animal lovers, arts, lighthouses, NASCAR, and so much more. And, yes, there is actually a Sons Of Confederate Veterans one with the battle flag. There are even plates featuring the logos of colleges in other states, because they are part of the ACC. That’s just silly. But, the state makes lots of money off the plates.

There are even some religious organizations, such as the Sudan Temple.

The Supreme Court could therefore side with Texas, but also with the abortion-rights supporters in the North Carolina case. This would require a balancing approach, holding that the state’s comparatively weak interest in denying the pro-choice plate is outweighed by the group’s interest in expression. Nothing in this approach would deny North Carolina’s ability to transmit anti-abortion messages in other ways, as it already may do.

Two thoughts. First, states should stay out of the business of political messages on license plates, in regards to graphics. Second, I think NC should allow abortion rights plates if they are going to allow “choose life” plates, that way we can see who the nutjobs are who think murdering an unborn child is a “right”.

Oh, a third, which is also mention in the opinion piece: if a citizen wants a certain political message on a vehicle, purchase a bumper sticker.

Crossed at Pirate’s Cove. Follow me on Twitter @WilliamTeach.

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