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Sunday, January 20, 2019

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 various business and social interests promote themselves on the 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 before. In the 1977 Wooley v. Maynard case, Jehovah’s Witnesses held that the New Hampshire state motto stamped on all license plates, “Live Free or Die,” offended their religious convictions. The court ruled that New Hampshire 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 Wild, Wonderful (West Virginia), 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, sea turtles, manatees and largemouth bass — but not for blatant advertising. Sports teams are big businesses, and they have specialty plates.

Rhode Island offers a plate featuring Mr. Potato Head, marketed by the local toymaker, Hasbro. The fees car owners pay 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 that Texas was correct in turning down the plates displaying the Confederate Stars and Bars but that North Carolina was wrong in rejecting the abortion rights plates.

I asked him, What about the argument that many see the Confederate flag more as a historical artifact than as an endorsement of slavery? Brettschneider responded 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 entirely different interpretations?

“The Constitution requires deference to the democratic process,” Brettschneider answered, “but it also sometimes requires limits on that process.”

We do agree that bumper stickers are a great invention. They are a frugal way to advertise one’s religion, preferred candidate, dog’s breed, football team or sense of humor. State approval not required.

As for specialized messages on license plates, I persist in opposing them all. Professor Brettschneider’s approach is well constructed and certainly more nuanced, but managing its tensions would be a hard job.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

Photo: Stephen J. Conn via Flickr

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51 responses to “License Plates Are Not Bumper Stickers”

  1. manderso says:

    Just let them, it’s nice to know an idiot when you see their car.

    • Sand_Cat says:

      True enough. But most of them still have the GOP campaign stickers still on their bumpers, so we don’t really need the plates.

  2. joe schmo says:

    Oh brother, why not go back to the time when you could recognize a state just by the color of the plates?

    • itsfun says:

      Its OK to have personalized license plates along as the left approves of them. Its another one of the tolerances of the left. They are tolerant as long as you agree with them.

      • highpckts says:

        BS over and over again! It is not the “Left” who wants to ban vanity plates! It’s the ACLU and leave it to Texas to be the epicenter of a nonsense issue. They and other southern states have never gotten over the Civil war! How immature!! They can always cecede and live on their own with no help from the government but they can’t do that because they are the biggest “takers”!!

        • kenndeb says:

          The ACLU is a leftist group. Try again.

          • highpckts says:

            Oh for Heaven’s sake! Grow up!!

          • kenndeb says:

            Try to get your lies straight. I know that truth is an alien concept for you liberals, but do try.

          • MacK says:

            Since your facts are transparently crossed, and you are avowedly a conservative, I think you probably should not be calling on liberals to get their facts straight.

          • kenndeb says:

            Liberal do not have facts, they only have lies.

          • MacK says:

            So the cert petition signed by a Republican AG now governor was faked – or are you unable to read? The link is up there.

            Are you an example of the veracity and intelligence of Conservatives – because so far you are stupid and wrong

          • Sand_Cat says:

            Sometimes when we’re around you guys, lies seem to be the only thing in the world. Well, there’s selfishness, malice, bigotry, and a few other things, too.

          • highpckts says:

            The truth is only alien to the right and has been proven many times over!!

          • kenndeb says:

            Right. I forgot you believe the propaganda and lies told to you by this lawless regime and illegal Emperor.

          • highpckts says:

            In what way is this “regime” lawless??? Put your facts where your big mouth is! I don’t mean right wing talking points either!

          • Sand_Cat says:

            Speaking of lies, you haven’t a single honest basis on which to declare Obama as either illegal or an emperor. It’s just more sour grapes and flight (to the right) from reality.

          • Elliot J. Stamler says:

            They certainly are…but YOU are an extreme rightist.

          • kenndeb says:

            Not as extreme as you may think. I only seem extreme because of your liberal indoctrination.

          • Sand_Cat says:

            No, in actual reality, the American Democratic Party is a Center-Right party; it’s just that you and the GOP are so far out in right field you can’t even see the center, much less anything to the left of it. There really isn’t much of the latter in the US today.

          • Sand_Cat says:

            They’d defend your rights more than any right-wing GOP group would defend mine (or yours, for that matter). It’s nice that you admit that those who care about freedom and the Constitution are “leftist,” at least relatively speaking, in today’s politics.It used to be that public health and Constitutional rights and a fair number of things weren’t political issues, but now they are, and the RIGHT and the GOP are on the WRONG side of every one of them. Even when they claim to be defending someone’s rights, it’s always that person’s “right” to take away someone else’s.

        • MacK says:

          Everyone is missing the point. First the current Supreme Court case is not the ACLU – it is Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans. Walker is the Texas commissioner who refused the plate (and being from Texas is most certainly a Republican.) The state is opposing the plate (Gregg Abott (R) is on the State’s Brief.)

          The North Carolina case is what is best described as an “if you bring candy to school you have to bring it for everyone” case, i.e., if you let pro-Lifers have a plate you have to let the pro-Choicers too. So the ACLU was not opposing plates as such, just saying you have to give them to both sides in a political debate.

          The “Live Free or Die” case was a religious freedom case – requiring everyone to display the motto was contrary to certain groups’ religious views (for some groups it is an oath which is prohibited, others Quakers, Mennonites, etc. are doctrinally pacifist) and US constitutional law has long held that compelled speech also violates the 1st Amendment.

          Basically the day that states started letting various groups decide to put things on number plates, especially mottos, they were opening a 1st Amendment “can of worms” – at that is the cause of the case.

      • Sand_Cat says:

        Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s why NC turned down the reproductive freedom plates, because the “left” (who are left only in relation to right-wing bigots and lunatics like you) didn’t approve.
        God, you still haven’t learned how to tell the truth. And before you go around accusing others of being asses, maybe you should consider that the stink results from where your head (and your ideas, morals, and ethics) is firmly implanted.

  3. whodatbob says:

    Either ban all specialized plates or allow all to have a specialized plate. Freedom of speech no censorship!

  4. highpckts says:

    This is where small groups ruin it for everyone! Now there will be no specialized plates because of a group of asshats that have to have their way!

    • kenndeb says:

      So true. The liberals have ruined near everything they get involved with, especially America.

      • highpckts says:

        Really? I guess hard facts just don’t matter to you. You are Republican come Hell or highwater! It doesn’t matter what they do. it’s the right thing! Sad!

        • kenndeb says:

          As I have stated repeatedly, I am actually a registered democrat that has been betrayed by my party when they allowed the liberal communists to hijack the party and are supporting an illegal tyrant. The republicans are near as bad, but they do not support communist agendas. I want to see ALL career politicians gone, along with the two party system. “The enemy of your enemy is your friend” seems to apply.

          • highpckts says:

            Liberal Communists?? Well I’m sorry things aren’t going according to how you think they should go but you are just one person with a lot of hate. This is a government for millions of people, not just you!! Just don’t vote and see how that turns out! Oh I know, run for President. I am totally sure you have all the answers and would get along with everyone and save the world!

          • kenndeb says:

            I can find any ape in any zoo that can do as well as the Emperor

          • highpckts says:

            Oh my! Listen to the bigot rant! Why don’t you wear your sheets in the open??

          • Independent1 says:

            Really!! Well, the 5 ‘APES’ that the GOP got elected since Eisenhower was in office couldn’t carry a candle for the guy that’s in White House at the moment. He’s accomplished more in 6 years than they accomplished in 28!!

            And what’s really interesting, that while accomplishing more than they ever did, he hasn’t started any wars that ended up killing more than 6,000 Americans and countless Iraqis.

            And there have only been a handful of attacks on America’s overseas diplomatic offices with 4 people being killed. Unlike under the last 3 GOP ‘APES” who allowed an average of 10 overseas attacks each with more than 400 hundred Americans being killed in overseas offices and 3,000 being killed here at home in the worst homeland terror attack in our nations history!!

            Talk about being absolute failures!!! No presidents in American history have been the disasters that the last 5 GOP presidents have!!!!!!

          • Carolyn1520 says:

            LMAO Yeah right.

          • Sand_Cat says:

            Come on, Ken. You obviously have little idea about what Communism is, or how it usually gains power. Pretty much all of the Communist governments in history that were not installed by invasion were put in place by rebellions triggered by nice, Fascist or semi-Fascist oligarchical governments like those about which many of you Repubs seem to have wet dreams.

      • MacK says:

        Well it was Republicans that actually refused the plate, Republicans that are representing Texas in the Supreme Court – this is not the ACLU. Take a look at the Cert Petition:

        As I put it below this problem was inevitable the moment that states started issuing these plates, because the statements on plates have been held by various courts to be state speech or an endorsement by the state.

        As it happens the cert petition has a point – the law on this issue is confused. But it most certainly is not because of liberal judges or the ACLU.

  5. FireBaron says:

    Talk to any law-enforcement professional and they will tell you how much they hate the “message plates”. They compress the plate number into a smaller area, and add coloring that makes the contrast letters and numbers difficult to read.
    However, for some reason folks with those plates seem to think they are immune from traffic laws, so they do also serve as a good source of income for the town and state budgets!

  6. MacK says:

    An I’m descended from someone who committed treason and got away with it plate?

    • mikes2653 says:

      Do you mean that you are descended from a subject of the British crown who rebelled against it in 1776?

      • MacK says:

        confederates rebelled in 1976? Seems that you are hazy on history and dates….

        • mikes2653 says:

          Read carefully. I wrote 1776, not 1976.

          You were not referring to Confederates, but rather to “someone who committed treason and got away with it.” That category is not exclusively confined to Confederates – hence my comment. Clearly the American Revolution was an act of treason against the British crown, and the Revolutionaries got away with it. They were just as guilty as you tried to allege the Confederates were.

          And the Confederates, unlike those who set the precedent of secession for them by seceding from the British empire, did not really “get away with it.” They were defeated and then subjected to a protracted military occupation.

          It really sucks when you have to explain a joke, doesn’t it?

          • Sand_Cat says:

            Fair enough. It might do Americans who go about mouthing off about “treason” to remember that’s what the country was founded on. Of course, unlike many of the Confederates, the colonists may not have personally sworn allegiance to the government against which they rebelled, and I’d like to think they had at least slightly better reasons than slavery, but treason is treason.

      • Sand_Cat says:

        Yes, them too.

  7. Carolyn1520 says:

    I say, let’s require it on license plates. It’s like a warning label. Otherwise you have to wait until they are up close and you can tell they only breathe through their mouth.

  8. Whatmeworry says:

    Its called Free Speech. Something the left only cares about when its speech they like

  9. Whatmeworry says:

    Its called Free Speech. Something the right only cares about when its speech they like

    • Sand_Cat says:

      Your last phrase is absolutely correct. However, as the article pointed out, license plates are not advertisements, or platforms for expressing political and other opinions. Most states have very long lists of things one cannot put on one, including such horrible obscenities as FUBAR, etc. Most states should not be using tax dollars to advertise political opinions, or have their official documents for sale to anyone with money and an opinion.
      I never really thought about this before, but the author is absolutely correct.

  10. Gary Miles says:

    The whole purpose of the 1st Amendment is to protect free speech. That includes speech that some may dislike. The Confederate flag has only become “offensive” to some folks on the left. It doesn’t bother me or offend me at all, mainly because I don’t believe the Civil War was over slavery. History is pretty clear it was not. The whole issue of slavery didn’t get involved until near the end, as Lincoln didn’t want the Brits involved. If people would just read up on history and quite reading sites like Solon they would be much wiser.

    • Sand_Cat says:

      Yes, obviously you are another “denier.” Do you also deny the Holocaust, Evolution, and Global Warming, or do you limit your denials to those supporting racist causes? I guess the “whole issue of slavery didn’t get involved” until the secession documents mentioned it repeatedly, and listed it as an important reason. I believe one mentioned it 19 times in a one-page document. Or was that the Confederate Constitution?

      • Gary Miles says:

        I have become immune to hate speech, or racist’s and the garbage they spew. I do not like it, but I spent 12 years of my life defending their right to spew it. That’s called freedom. That’s what this country is built on. If you don’t like it, you have the right to speak out against it. You however do NOT have the right to demand it be suppressed. Your rights end when it denies the rights of others. By fighting against free speech, your just destroying your own freedom of expression. Once you demand your government to deny others their rights, that same government can come back and deny you your rights. Once you permit a government to deny rights, then you agree for them to suppress your rights as well. Be careful what you ask for. As far as the Civil War, my education came long before schools became left wing indoctrination centers. One day you will realize what you have been taught to believe is bullshit. It took my awhile too, take your time, it will come.

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