Walker v. Texas Divisions, sons of Confederate Veterans (2015)

576 U.S. _

Case Year: 2015

Case Ruling: 5-4, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Breyer

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Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, Thomas


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Alito

Joiner(s): Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



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All vehicle license plates in the state of Texas are required to display identifying numbers and letters along with the state name and slogan, but automobile owners have a choice between a generic state license plate and a specialty plate. Individuals who want the state to issue a particular specialty plate may submit to the state Department of Motor Vehicles a proposed design that contains a slogan, graphic, or both. If the department approves the proposal, it will make the design available for all licensed vehicles. Specialty plates are sold at a premium to the generic plates, thus producing income for the state. At the time of this dispute, more than 350 designs had been approved.

In 2009 and again in 2010 the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) proposed a specialty license plate design that incorporated the Confederate battle flag. Both times the department rejected the design. SCV sued John Walker III and other members of the department’s governing board claiming that the denial was a violation of the freedom of speech provision of the First Amendment. The district court ruled in favor of the state, but a divided court of appeals reversed, holding that the state had engaged in constitutionally forbidden viewpoint discrimination.


In this case, the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a specialty license plate design featuring a Confederate battle flag. The Board rejected the proposal. We must decide whether that rejection violated the Constitution’s free speech guarantees. See Amdts. 1, 14. We conclude that it did not. . . .

When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009). That freedom in part reflects the fact that it is the democratic electoral process that first and foremost provides a check on government speech. See Board of Regents of Univ. of Wis. System v. Southworth (2000). Thus, government statements (and government actions and programs that take the form of speech) do not normally trigger the First Amendment rules designed to protect the marketplace of ideas. . .

Were the Free Speech Clause interpreted otherwise, government would not work. How could a city government create a successful recycling program if officials, when writing householders asking them to recycle cans and bottles, had to include in the letter a long plea from the local trash disposal enterprise demanding the contrary? How could a state government effectively develop programs designed to encourage and provide vaccinations, if officials also had to voice the perspective of those who oppose this type of immunization? “[I]t is not easy to imagine how government could function if it lacked th[e] freedom” to select the messages it wishes to convey. Summum.

We have therefore refused “[t]o hold that the Government unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of viewpoint when it chooses to fund a program dedicated to advance certain permissible goals, because the program in advancing those goals necessarily discourages alternative goals.” Rust v. Sullivan (1991). . . .

[A]s a general matter, when the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy, or to take a position. In doing so, it represents its citizens and it carries out its duties on their behalf.

In our view, specialty license plates issued pursuant to Texas’s statutory scheme convey government speech. Our reasoning rests primarily on our analysis in Summum, a recent case that presented a similar problem. We conclude here, as we did there, that our precedents regarding government speech (and not our precedents regarding forums for private speech) provide the appropriate framework through which to approach the case.

In Summum, we considered a religious organization’s request to erect in a 2.5-acre city park a monument setting forth the organization’s religious tenets. In the park were 15 other permanent displays. At least 11 of these—including a wishing well, a September 11 monument, a historic granary, the city’s first fire station, and a Ten Commandments monument—had been donated to the city by private entities. The religious organization argued that the Free Speech Clause required the city to display the organization’s proposed monument because, by accepting a broad range of permanent exhibitions at the park, the city had created a forum for private speech in the form of monuments.

This Court rejected the organization’s argument. We held that the city had not “provid[ed] a forum for private speech” with respect to monuments. Summum. Rather, the city, even when “accepting a privately donated monument and placing it on city property,” had “engage[d] in expressive conduct.” The speech at issue, this Court decided, was “best viewed as a form of government speech” and “therefore [was] not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause.”

We based our conclusion on several factors. First, history shows that “[g]overnments have long used monuments to speak to the public.” Thus, we observed that “[w]hen a government entity arranges for the construction of a monument, it does so because it wishes to convey some thought or instill some feeling in those who see the structure.”

Second, we noted that it “is not common for property owners to open up their property for the installation of permanent monuments that convey a message with which they do not wish to be associated.” As a result, “persons who observe donated monuments routinely—and reasonably—interpret them as conveying some message on the property owner’s behalf.” And “observers” of such monuments, as a consequence, ordinarily “appreciate the identity of the speaker.”

Third, we found relevant the fact that the city maintained control over the selection of monuments. We thought it “fair to say that throughout our Nation’s history, the general government practice with respect to donated monuments has been one of selective receptivity.” And we observed that the city government in Summum “ ‘effectively controlled’ the messages sent by the monuments in the [p]ark by exercising ‘final approval authority’ over their selection.”

In light of these and a few other relevant considerations, the Court concluded that the expression at issue was government speech. And, in reaching that conclusion, the Court rejected the premise that the involvement of private parties in designing the monuments was sufficient to prevent the government from controlling which monuments it placed in its own public park.

Our analysis in Summum leads us to the conclusion that here, too, government speech is at issue. First, the history of license plates shows that, insofar as license plates have conveyed more than state names and vehicle identification numbers, they long have communicated messages from the States. In 1917, Arizona became the first State to display a graphic on its plates. The State presented a depiction of the head of a Hereford steer. . . .

In 1928, Idaho became the first State to include a slogan on its plates. The 1928 Idaho plate proclaimed “Idaho Potatoes” and featured an illustration of a brown potato, onto which the license plate number was superimposed in green. The brown potato did not catch on, but slogans on license plates did. . . . States have used license plate slogans to urge action, to promote tourism, and to tout local industries. . . .

Second, Texas license plate designs “are often closely identified in the public mind with the [State].” Summum. Each Texas license plate is a government article serving the governmental purposes of vehicle registration and identification. The governmental nature of the plates is clear from their faces: The State places the name “TEXAS” in large letters at the top of every plate. Moreover, the State requires Texas vehicle owners to display license plates, and every Texas license plate is issued by the State. Texas also owns the designs on its license plates, including the designs that Texas adopts on the basis of proposals made by private individuals and organizations. And Texas dictates the manner in which drivers may dispose of unused plates.

Texas license plates are, essentially, government IDs. And issuers of ID “typically do not permit” the placement on their IDs of “message[s] with which they do not wish to be associated.” Consequently, “persons who observe” designs on IDs “routinely—and reasonably—interpret them as conveying some message on the [issuer’s] behalf.”

Indeed, a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message. If not, the individual could simply display the message in question in larger letters on a bumper sticker right next to the plate. But the individual prefers a license plate design to the purely private speech expressed through bumper stickers. That may well be because Texas’s license plate designs convey government agreement with the message displayed.

Third, Texas maintains direct control over the messages conveyed on its specialty plates. Texas law provides that the State “has sole control over the design, typeface, color, and alphanumeric pattern for all license plates.” The Board must approve every specialty plate design proposal before the design can appear on a Texas plate. And the Board and its predecessor have actively exercised this authority. Texas asserts, and SCV concedes, that the State has rejected at least a dozen proposed designs. Accordingly, like the city government in Summum, Texas “has ‘effectively controlled’ the messages [conveyed] by exercising ‘final approval authority’ over their selection.”

This final approval authority allows Texas to choose how to present itself and its constituency. Thus, Texas offers plates celebrating the many educational institutions attended by its citizens. But it need not issue plates deriding schooling. Texas offers plates that pay tribute to the Texas citrus industry. But it need not issue plates praising Florida’s oranges as far better. And Texas offers plates that say “Fight Terrorism.” But it need not issue plates promoting al Qaeda.

These considerations, taken together, convince us that the specialty plates here in question are similar enough to the monuments in Summum to call for the same result. . . .

SCV believes that Texas’s specialty license plate designs are not government speech, at least with respect to the designs (comprising slogans and graphics) that were initially proposed by private parties. According to SCV, the State does not engage in expressive activity through such slogans and graphics, but rather provides a forum for private speech by making license plates available to display the private parties’ designs. We cannot agree.

We have previously used what we have called “forum analysis” to evaluate government restrictions on purely private speech that occurs on government property. Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc.(1985). But forum analysis is misplaced here. Because the State is speaking on its own behalf, the First Amendment strictures that attend the various types of government-established forums do not apply.

The parties agree that Texas’s specialty license plates are not a “traditional public forum,” such as a street or a park, “which ha[s] immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, ha[s] been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” Perry Ed. Assn. v. Perry Local Educators’ Assn. (1983). “The Court has rejected the view that traditional public forum status extends beyond its historic confines.” Arkansas Ed. Television Comm’n v. Forbes (1998). And state-issued specialty license plates lie far beyond those confines.

It is equally clear that Texas’s specialty plates are neither a “ ‘designated public forum,’ ” which exists where “government property that has not traditionally been regarded as a public forum is intentionally opened up for that purpose,” Summum, nor a “limited public forum,” which exists where a government has “reserv[ed a forum] for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics,” Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va. (1995). A government “does not create a public forum by inaction or by permitting limited discourse, but only by intentionally opening a nontraditional forum for public discourse.” Cornelius. . . .

Texas’s policies and the nature of its license plates indicate that the State did not intend its specialty license plates to serve as either a designated public forum or a limited public forum. First, the State exercises final authority over each specialty license plate design. . . . Second, Texas takes ownership of each specialty plate design, making it particularly untenable that the State intended specialty plates to serve as a forum for public discourse. Finally, Texas license plates have traditionally been used for government speech, are primarily used as a form of government ID, and bear the State’s name. These features of Texas license plates indicate that Texas explicitly associates itself with the speech on its plates. . . .

The fact that private parties take part in the design and propagation of a message does not extinguish the governmental nature of the message or transform the government’s role into that of a mere forum-provider. InSummum, private entities “financed and donated monuments that the government accept[ed] and display[ed] to the public.” . . .

Additionally, the fact that Texas vehicle owners pay annual fees in order to display specialty license plates does not imply that the plate designs are merely a forum for private speech. . . .

Our determination that Texas’s specialty license plate designs are government speech does not mean that the designs do not also implicate the free speech rights of private persons. We have acknowledged that drivers who display a State’s selected license plate designs convey the messages communicated through those designs. See Wooley v. Maynard (1977). And we have recognized that the First Amendment stringently limits a State’s authority to compel a private party to express a view with which the private party disagrees. But here, compelled private speech is not at issue. And just as Texas cannot require SCV to convey “the State’s ideological message,” Wooley, SCV cannot force Texas to include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates.

For the reasons stated, we hold that Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech and that Texas was consequently entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design. Accordingly, the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is



The Court’s decision passes off private speech as government speech and, in doing so, establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that government finds displeasing. Under our First Amendment cases, the distinction between government speech and private speech is critical. The First Amendment “does not regulate government speech,” and therefore when government speaks, it is free “to select the views that it wants to express.” Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009). By contrast, “[i]n the realm of private speech or expression, government regulation may not favor one speaker over another.” Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va. (1995).

Unfortunately, the Court’s decision categorizes private speech as government speech and thus strips it of all First Amendment protection. The Court holds that all the privately created messages on the many specialty plates issued by the State of Texas convey a government message rather than the message of the motorist displaying the plate. Can this possibly be correct?

Here is a test. Suppose you sat by the side of a Texas highway and studied the license plates on the vehicles passing by. You would see, in addition to the standard Texas plates, an impressive array of specialty plates. (There are now more than 350 varieties.) You would likely observe plates that honor numerous colleges and universities. You might see plates bearing the name of a high school, a fraternity or sorority, the Masons, the Knights of Columbus, the Daughters of the American Revolution, a realty company, a favorite soft drink, a favorite burger restaurant, and a favorite NASCAR driver.

As you sat there watching these plates speed by, would you really think that the sentiments reflected in these specialty plates are the views of the State of Texas and not those of the owners of the cars? If a car with a plate that says “Rather Be Golfing” passed by at 8:30 am on a Monday morning, would you think: “This is the official policy of the State—better to golf than to work?” If you did your viewing at the start of the college football season and you saw Texas plates with the names of the University of Texas’s out-of-state competitors in upcoming games—Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, the University of Oklahoma, Kansas State, Iowa State—would you assume that the State of Texas was officially (and perhaps treasonously) rooting for the Longhorns’ opponents? And when a car zipped by with a plate that reads “NASCAR – 24 Jeff Gordon,” would you think that Gordon (born in California, raised in Indiana, resides in North Carolina) is the official favorite of the State government?

The Court says that all of these messages are government speech. . .

This capacious understanding of government speech takes a large and painful bite out of the First Amendment. Specialty plates may seem innocuous. They make motorists happy, and they put money in a State’s coffers. But the precedent this case sets is dangerous. While all license plates unquestionably contain some government speech (e.g., the name of the State and the numbers and/or letters identifying the vehicle), the State of Texas has converted the remaining space on its specialty plates into little mobile billboards on which motorists can display their own messages. And what Texas did here was to reject one of the messages that members of a private group wanted to post on some of these little billboards because the State thought that many of its citizens would find the message offensive. That is blatant viewpoint discrimination.

If the State can do this with its little mobile billboards, could it do the same with big, stationary billboards? Suppose that a State erected electronic billboards along its highways. Suppose that the State posted some government messages on these billboards and then, to raise money, allowed private entities and individuals to purchase the right to post their own messages. And suppose that the State allowed only those messages that it liked or found not too controversial. Would that be constitutional?

What if a state college or university did the same thing with a similar billboard or a campus bulletin board or dorm list serve? What if it allowed private messages that are consistent with prevailing views on campus but banned those that disturbed some students or faculty? Can there be any doubt that these examples of viewpoint discrimination would violate the First Amendment? I hope not, but the future uses of today’s precedent remain to be seen. . . .

What Texas has done by selling space on its license plates is to create what we have called a limited public forum. It has allowed state property (i.e., motor vehicle license plates) to be used by private speakers according to rules that the State prescribes. Under the First Amendment, however, those rules cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint. But that is exactly what Texas did here. The Board rejected Texas SCV’s design, “specifically the confederate flag portion of the design, because public comments have shown that many members of the general public find the design offensive, and because such comments are reasonable.” These statements indisputably demonstrate that the Board denied Texas SCV’s design because of its viewpoint.

The Confederate battle flag is a controversial symbol. To the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, it is said to evoke the memory of their ancestors and other soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War. To others, it symbolizes slavery, segregation, and hatred. Whatever it means to motorists who display that symbol and to those who see it, the flag expresses a viewpoint. The Board rejected the plate design because it concluded that many Texans would find the flag symbol offensive. That was pure viewpoint discrimination.

If the Board’s candid explanation of its reason for rejecting the SCV plate were not alone sufficient to establish this point, the Board’s approval of the Buffalo Soldiers plate at the same meeting dispels any doubt. The proponents of both the SCV and Buffalo Soldiers plates saw them as honoring soldiers who served with bravery and honor in the past. To the opponents of both plates, the images on the plates evoked painful memories. The Board rejected one plate and approved the other.

Like these two plates, many other specialty plates have the potential to irritate and perhaps even infuriate those who see them. Texas allows a plate with the words “Choose Life,” but the State of New York rejected such a plate because the message “[is] so incredibly divisive.” Texas allows a specialty plate honoring the Boy Scouts, but the group’s refusal to accept gay leaders angers some. Virginia, another State with a proliferation of specialty plates, issues plates for controversial organizations like the National Rifle Association, controversial commercial enterprises (raising tobacco and mining coal), controversial sports (fox hunting), and a professional sports team with a controversial name (the Washington Redskins). Allowing States to reject specialty plates based on their potential to offend is viewpoint discrimination. . . .

Messages that are proposed by private parties and placed on Texas specialty plates are private speech, not government speech. Texas cannot forbid private speech based on its viewpoint. That is what it did here. Because the Court approves this violation of the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent.