Do vanity license plates represent the view of the driver or the state?

The license plates on cars are issued by the state. But states have found that they can generate extra revenue by creating so-called ‘vanity plates’ that surround the obligatory identifying information with a message that car owners can choose subject to state approval. This raises the issue of whose view is on the plate, the car owner or the state. The fact that the owner chose that message argues in favor of the owner. The fact that the state issues the plates and controls what can be put on it argues in favor of the state. So what happens when the owner selects a message that the state objects to?

This issue is now before at the US Supreme Court in the case of Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.. Lyle Denniston explains what the court is being asked to decide.

The key issue in the license plate case (Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans) is whether the messages that are displayed on specialty tags are a form of government speech, so that officials can decide which to allow or to forbid. If, however, they represent the views of the car or truck owner, then the government’s power to veto a message is more tightly restricted.

In a 1977 ruling, in Wooley v. Maynard, the Court treated a license plate message as a form of private speech displayed on private property, but it did not rule explicitly whether this was government speech or private speech more generally. In the 2009 decision in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, the Court decided that a government entity has a right to speak for itself, and thus has the authority to refuse to accept a symbolic monument for display in a public park.

The Court was asked in the Texas case, and in a separate North Carolina case that is now apparently being kept on hold, to clarify a split among federal appeals courts on whether vanity plate messages are to be treated as government or private expressions. In the Texas case, a group that seeks to preserve the memory and reputation of soldiers who fought for the Confederacy sought state approval for a plate design that included the Confederate battle flag.

Ultimately, after a series of conflicting votes, a state agency turned down that design, saying that many people regard the rebels’ flag as associated with hatred toward groups. The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued, and ultimately won a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, declaring that specialty plate messages are a form of private speech, and that the state agency had engaged in forbidden viewpoint discrimination.

The Supreme Court will now review the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

My own feeling is that states should not issue vanity plates. The plates should not even have the state’s motto or similar slogan on it since car owners may not like what it says and are yet required to display that message. But as states try to get a few extra dollars for their coffers by selling these things, they open themselves up to these kinds of legal complications.


  1. says

    I’d say if the state chose the text on them, it’s the state’s “view” whereas if the driver chose the text on them it’s the drivers’ — seems obvious to me but I’m not a politician or bureacrat.

  2. Bakunin says

    The Sons of Southern Traitors can put all the slaver flags they want all over their cars, homes, bodies, etc., but demanding that the state assist them with pro-slavery plates is too much. Free speech just keeps you out of trouble; it doesn’t require others assist you in speaking.

  3. says

    Yes, but this is a combination of both the state and the driver choosing the text. Suppose the state allowed one of 4 “mottoes”:

    1. Democrats Suck!
    2. Libertarians Suck!
    3. Greens Suck!
    4. Republicans are Great!

    The state is choosing the allowable texts on the plate, but the drive is choosing which one s/he wants.

    Should the state be forced to also provide a “Republicans Suck!” motto? But then, what other mottoes are they required to provide? “Iguanas are Great!”?

  4. says

    My own feeling is that states should not issue vanity plates.

    I don’t have a problem with vanity plates except when some bureaucrat decides what can or can’t be put on a plate. There are cases of government employees abusing their authority and imposing their personal biases on citizens, e.g. athiests not allowed to have messages but christians are.

    The plates should not even have the state’s motto or similar slogan on it since car owners may not like what it says and are yet required to display that message.

    Hear, hear. Freedom includes the right to disagree, and if you disagree with the state “motto”, it should not be used as a reason to deny someone’s driving privileges. It’s no more justification than denying rights or privileges to someone who refuses to say an oath (e.g. US’s pledge of obedience). Tourism messages might not seem problematic (e.g. “Virginia is for lovers”, “Big Sky country” in Montana, “Beautiful British Columbia”), but where does the line get drawn between what is or what isn’t acceptable, where it’s deemed “political” or “advertising”?

    Maybe the Europeans have it right with bland, high-def black and white license plates, showing only country and number. Here’s an image of US plates done in the European style. I like them.

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