Justices Struggle With Free Speech Case Over License Plates

WASHINGTON (AP) -

In a dispute over a proposed Confederate battle flag license plate, the Supreme Court struggled Monday to balance worries about government censorship and concerns that offensive messages could, at worst, incite violence.

Nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the justices heard arguments in a case over Texas’ refusal to issue a license plate bearing the battle flag. Nine other states allow drivers to display plates with the flag, which remains both a potent image of heritage and a racially charged symbol of repression.

Specialty license plates are big business in Texas. They brought in $17.6 million last year and state officials said there are now nearly 450 messages to choose from. The state rarely rejects a specialty plate, but it did turn down a request by the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for a license plate with its logo bearing the battle flag. The group’s lawsuit led to Monday’s hearing.

The justices seemed uncomfortable with arguments advanced by both sides – the state in defense of its actions, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans in their appeal for the symbol.

If the court finds the state must permit the battle flag on license plates, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked in a series of questions, would it be forced also to allow plates with a swastika, the word “jihad?”

More skeptical about the state’s argument, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito said the sheer number of messages and their wide range show that the state’s only interest is financial.

“They’re only doing this to get the money,” Roberts said. “Texas will put its name on anything.”

A decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, 14-144, is expected by late June.