License Plates and Free Speech

December 11, 2011

Political Theory


A controversial organization called the “Sons of Confederate Veterans,” which is a heritage group for all descendants of soldiers who served the Confederate States of America during the American Civil war from 1861-65. This group is currently seeking to have a license plate with their logo in all fifty states. They have accomplished this in nine states so far, and when their license plate proposal was recently rejected in the state of Texas, the Texas division of the organization decided to file a civil suit against the Department of Motor Vehicles. In a statement, they said “The First Amendment clearly protects controversial speech.” They also stated that on the same day that the board of the Department of Motor Vehicles rejected their license plate, the borad approved a plate that honors the Buffalo Soldiers, an all African-American cavalry unit who fought the Native Americans, which they claim is offensive to all Native Americans. This particular license plate is the first that the Texas board of Department of Motor Vehicles has rejected since a rules change that occurred two years ago, as it has approved all other eighty-nine license plate designs submitted.

This is the license plate that was rejected by the Texas Board of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In their statement, the group also stated, “The board seeks to bar the SCV from expressing their viewpoint, while allowing all other groups to express their viewpoint. This type of restriction is exactly the type which the First Amendment is designed to erase.” It is worth noting that although nine states have approved Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates, the states of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina only did so after the organization filed suits against them; and a similar suit is currently underway in the state of Florida. The SCV is hopeful that the license plate will be allowed because of a “precedent that has been set” in the other states, which have allowed these plates after legal action was brought against them by the group.

Supporters of the license plate, such as Texas Land¬†Commissioner Jerry Patterson, argue that the license plate supports the soldiers who fought, not the politicians who made this war possible. He stated, “Tens of thousands of Texans marched into battle behind that flag, and we are here to commemorate the soldiers, not the politicians,” in an article provided by Reuters. Those opposed to the license plate are so because of the memories of racism that the flag evokes. The Texas State NAACP president, Gary Bledsoe, stated, “We know that flag is a true symbol of people that hate.” Also, the Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett, whose great-great-grandfather was a soldier for the Confederate States of America, stated, “I can honor that past as the great-great-grandson of a Confederate veteran without doing something that is divisive and hurtful to many of our neighbors.” Texas Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry also urged the board to reject the plates, saying “We don’t need to be scraping old wounds.”

It is quite clear that this is a pretty blatant violation of Freedom of Speech, as the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles is not allowing this license plate to be implemented, even after a 2009 rule change that allows “political or controversial” to be made for the people. There are multiple political theorists, the most notable and prevalent of whom is John Stuart Mill, who would be against this ruling, as it prevents the freedom of expression and opinion by every person. However, some people may think that the board made the right decision, as the backlash and memories evoked by this license plate would cause friction in society. Do you think that the board made the right decision, or do you think that all cases of speech and expression should be allowed?

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