Specialty License Plates, The US Supreme Court And NC
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a Texas case that could resolve an ongoing legal question in North Carolina: can lawmakers here offer a license plate that says "Choose Life" but refuse to offer a pro-choice alternative?
Texas refused to offer specialty license plates with a Confederate flag on them. The question that's made it to the U.S. Supreme Court is not whether Confederate flags are OK, but whether state-issued plates are government speech or private speech.
If they're government speech, then state governments can put – or not put – whatever they want on them. To help understand this concept, UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Michael Gerhardt says think of government speech as what the president says.
"The president can give a speech about pretty much anything he wants," Gerhardt says. "People can express a disagreement with the president's message, but they can't force the president to say what they want him to say."
The Texas equivalent is that people can't force the state to put Confederate flags on their license plates.
North Carolina already offers Confederate flag license plates. What it's been sued over involves abortion: North Carolina offers pro-life license plates but not pro-choice ones.
A federal appeals court shut that down, ruling that the plates involve private speech. Charlotte School of Law professor Scott Broyles says that means the First Amendment applies.
"If it's private speech, the state cannot selectively allow one sort of license plate, such as pro-life or pro-choice," Broyles says, "and deny the other because that would be considered improper viewpoint discrimination."
The state can't pick sides, but you can.
North Carolina appealed, and its Republican legislative leaders have filed a brief in the Texas case. If the U.S. Supreme Court rules against Texas, that likely means the North Carolina lawmakers lose, too.