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What License Plate Case In Texas Means For NC


A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving Confederate flag license plates in Texas is likely to settle a case involving pro-life license plates in North Carolina.

In a 5-4 decision last week, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas can reject a proposal to put a Confederate flag on a specialty license plate.

The question wasn't whether Confederate flags are OK, but whether license plates count as government speech or private speech. The justices chose government speech. Charlotte School of Law professor Scott Broyles says that means "state governments can control the content of those messages any way they want."

In other words, the First Amendment does not apply.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said, "...when the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy, or to take a position."

North Carolina has its own license plate case pending at the Supreme Court – can it offer a pro-life specialty plate but not a pro-choice one? State House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam says now, the answer is clearly yes.

"If the Texas case went that way, there's not going to be any wiggle room because ours is even more strongly, clearly government speech as opposed to private speech," he says.

Stam says that’s because lawmakers approve the license plates in North Carolina, while an administrative board approved them in Texas. 

As soon as Monday morning, the Supreme Court could rule on the North Carolina case or instruct a lower court to take it back up in light of its Texas ruling.

Broyles, the Charlotte law professor, says even though the state will be able to pick a side, "it cannot force an individual to adopt its state message."

"That is still clear," he says. "It can't force you to have a pro-life license plate, but it can keep you from having a pro-choice license plate."

Another law professor, Michael Gerhardt at UNC-Chapel Hill, says one of the reasons government speech works this way is that voters can hold their leaders accountable for what they say.

"If you don't like the government speech and you want to hear a different kind of speech issuing from the government, you can vote and try and change the government," Gerhardt says.

Or as Justice Breyer put it, "...it is the democratic electoral process that first and foremost provides a check on government speech."