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License plates are not bumper stickers

Sitting in traffic.

Sitting in traffic. Photo Credit: iStock

A group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans has asked Texas to issue a license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag, which many consider an emblem of slavery. Texas said no, and the sons are suing because the state accepts other messages for specialty plates.

The sons have a point.

North Carolina issues a license reading, "Choose Life." When lawmakers there refused to allow a competing abortion rights message, the American Civil Liberties Union sued.

The ACLU has a point, as well.

States have jumped on the slippery slope of letting business and social interests promote themselves on specialty license plates. Now they have slid into the U.S. Supreme Court, which has taken the Sons of Confederate Veterans case. The justices have examined license plates. In the 1977 Wooley v. Maynard case, Jehovah's Witnesses said that the New Hampshire state motto stamped on license plates, "Live Free or Die," offended their religious convictions. The court ruled residents had a right to cover up those words on their plates.

How about no messages on state-issued license plates? Or perhaps limiting them to such neutral bragging as Evergreen State (Washington), Sweet Home (Alabama) or Garden State (New Jersey)? I'll admit to a soft spot for environmental messages -- such as calls on Florida plates to protect whales, dolphins and sea turtles -- but not for blatant advertising.

Rhode Island offers a plate featuring Mr. Potato Head, marketed by the local toymaker Hasbro. The fees for such plates may go to a good cause (in Mr. Potato Head's case, a food bank), and states take their cut. Still, it's an ad. But when license plates take on an obvious political tinge, sparks fly. And that's why a blanket "no" to specialty plates is the right way to go.

Corey Brettschneider, professor of political science at Brown University, doesn't agree. He sees license plate messages as "mixed speech." Because the United States allows a freedom of expression unmatched by any other country, the state has an obligation to defend its values, he writes in his book "When the State Speaks, What Should It Say?: How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality." Brettschneider believes Texas correctly turned down the plates displaying the Confederate flag but that North Carolina was wrong in rejecting the abortion rights plates.

But what about the argument that the Confederate flag is seen more as a historical artifact than as an endorsement of slavery? Brettschneider responds that the flag's history, including its use in opposing civil rights legislation, suggests otherwise. And even if the intent of some of its backers is pure, the considerations are bigger than the views of a private person.

Texas would be tied to the symbol, he said. "Texas has a deep duty to avoid an association between the state's message and a racist message."

But who speaks for the state? What happens when one set of officials is replaced by another with different interpretations? "The Constitution requires deference to the democratic process," he said, "but it also sometimes requires limits on that process."


Bumper stickers are a great invention. They are a frugal way to advertise one's religion, preferred candidate, dog breed, football team or sense of humor. State approval not required.

As for specialized messages on license plates, I still oppose them. Brettschneider's approach is well-constructed and more nuanced, but managing its tensions would be a hard job.

Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist.


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