Justices Give Officials More Say On Cars' Plates, Less On Roadside Signs

Justices Give Officials More Say On Cars' Plates, Less On Roadside Signs

2:09pm Jun 19, 2015
The design of a proposed "Sons of the Confederacy" Texas state license plate, featuring the Confederate flag. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Texas did not infringe on free speech rights when it rejected the design.
The design of a proposed "Sons of the Confederacy" Texas state license plate, featuring the Confederate flag. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Texas did not infringe on free speech rights when it rejected the design.
Reuters/Landov

In two major free speech cases, the U.S. Supreme Court cast a pall of doubt over nearly all sign regulations across the country, and upheld a decision by the state of Texas to refuse to issue specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag.

The sign case is likely to have the most profound effect: Lawyers for local governments said the decision would "wreak havoc" with signage laws across the country.

"Somewhere between 99 percent and 100 percent of local governments are impacted by today's decision," said William Brinton, counsel for the National League of Cities and something of a guru on the signage issue for local governments.

The sign case originated in Gilbert, Ariz., where the tiny Good News Church battled the town fathers over limits the municipality imposed on signs temporarily posted to provide event directions.

The lower courts upheld the sign rules on grounds that the regulations were not aimed at suppressing speech. Many lower courts over the years have adopted that standard, as long as the regulations are deemed "reasonable."

But the Supreme Court struck down the Gilbert ordinance and the lower court ruling. In so doing, it issued a broad new constitutional mandate requiring the highest standard of proof to justify differing limits on signage.

All nine justices agreed that the Gilbert sign rules should be struck down because the town treated political, ideological and temporary directional signs differently and without justification. As Justice Elena Kagan put it in a concurrence, the town's explanations for its different regulations do not pass "even the laugh test."

However, agreement ended there. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion that any sign law that is content-based is subject to the most exacting rules for justification — and that any government signage rule that treats one group differently from another is automatically suspect and likely to fail what the court calls "strict scrutiny."

Bottom line: A town trying to justify its sign rules cannot defend itself by showing that its rules are merely sensible and do not aim to discriminate against any viewpoint.

University of Chicago Law Professor Genevieve Lakier calls the decision "shocking." She says it "calls into question a host of existing laws on the books, including the federal Highway Beautification Act."

Those applauding the ruling conceded the decision likely would lead to more litigation — "an avalanche" — said New York University law professor Burt Neuborne. But some, like Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, contend the strict new rule actually will make things easier for courts and citizens alike.

"There's kind of a simplicity to it," he says. "If you want to make a rule, don't pick and choose who the winners and losers are. Just make a rule based on things like 'does this obstruct vision on the roadway' or 'do we even want signs in the median at all?' "

The National League of Cities' Brinton disagrees, noting that election signs will pose particularly difficult problems "if you're going to do a one-size-fits-all."

Indeed, in Arizona, the state dictates the regulations for political signs, and state law generally permits signs that are much bigger than those permitted by local governments for other purposes.

Joining Justice Thomas in his majority opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito.

Alito wrote a separate concurrence, joined by Kennedy and Sotomayor, which seemed aimed at preventing hysteria over impending chaos in local communities. He listed a half-dozen types of rules that he said easily would pass muster.

"Properly understood," he said, "today's decision will not prevent cities from regulating signs in a way that fully protects public safety and serves legitimate aesthetic interests."

Walker V. Texas Division, Sons Of Confederate Veterans

The court's second ruling on Thursday upheld the speech rights of state governments in refusing to issue certain specialty license plates — specifically, Texas' right to reject a plate proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and featuring a Confederate flag.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said that license plates are essentially government-issued IDs, such that a reasonable observer would associate the speech on the plate with the state that issued it.

"Were the Free Speech Clause interpreted otherwise," he said, "government would not work."

How, he asked rhetorically, could a state government effectively develop programs to encourage and provide vaccinations if the government had to include the perspective of those opposed to immunization in officials' communications to the public?

As to the contention that specialty plates are private speech, Breyer said that a driver who wants to convey a message doesn't need to put it on a license plate; instead, he could simply put the message on a bumper sticker — and in bigger letters, too.

Breyer noted that the court's decision has "a kind of legal symmetry," because the court previously has said that citizens can opt out of license plates that convey messages that they disagree with.

The decision "vindicates what we'd said throughout this litigation," said former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, now at the Hoover Institution. "Images and messages on state-issued license plates are government speech — and that means the state can put what it wants on its license plates, and it can keep whatever it wants off those license plates."

For these reasons, the ruling should put an end to disputes in the courts regarding pro-life and pro-choice license plates, says Notre Dame Law Professor Richard Garnett.

"Whether or not a state has 'choose life' plates or pro-choice plates, or no [abortion issue] plates, is going to depend ... primarily on what the elected representatives decide to do, or ... what the appointed bureaucrats decide to do," he said.

The court majority in the license plate case was an odd one — the four more liberal justices joined with Justice Thomas, the court's most conservative member, who provided the fifth and decisive vote.

Dissenting were Justices Alito, Scalia and Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts. Writing for the four, Alito said that specialty plates "may seem innocuous" and "make motorists happy and put money in a state's coffers" — but such a broad view of state speech deprives citizens of their private speech (here, the Confederate flag plate) and "takes a large and painful bite out of the First Amendment."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Supreme Court issued two major free-speech decisions today. One is likely to cast doubt over nearly all sign regulations across the country. The other said that license plates are government speech and that Texas was within its rights to refuse to issue specialty plates displaying the Confederate flag. Here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The sign case originated in Gilbert, Ariz., where the Good News Church - average attendance, 25 people - battled the town fathers over limits the municipality imposed on temporary event directional signs. The lower courts upheld the sign rules on the grounds that the regulations were not aimed at suppressing speech. But today, the Supreme Court struck down the rules and in so doing, issued a broad, new constitutional mandate holding all governments to the highest standard of proof in justifying differing limits on signage. All nine justices agreed that the Gilbert sign rule should be struck down because the town treated political, ideological and temporary directional signs differently and had no justification.

As Justice Elena Kagan put it in a concurrence, the town's explanations for its different regulations does not pass even the laugh test. However, there the agreement ended. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion declaring that any sign law that is content-based is subject to the most exacting rules for justification. Any government signage rule that treats one group differently from another is automatically suspect and likely to fail what the court calls strict scrutiny. Bottom line, a town trying to justify its sign rules cannot defend itself by showing that its rules are merely sensible and that its motive was not to discriminate against any viewpoint. Lawyers for local government said the decision would wreak havoc with signage laws across the country. William Brinton is counsel for the National League of Cities.

WILLIAM BRINTON: Somewhere between 99 percent and 100 percent of local governments are impacted by today's decision.

TOTENBERG: University of Chicago law professor Genevieve Lakier calls the decision shocking.

GENEVIEVE LAKIER: It calls into question a host of existing laws on the books, including the Federal Highway Beautification Act.

TOTENBERG: Those applauding the ruling conceded the decision would likely lead to more litigation but said it's worth the risk. Eric Rassbach of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

ERIC RASSBACH: There's kind of a simplicity to it, which is that if you want to make a rule, don't pick and choose who the winners and losers are. Just make a rule based on things like, you know, does this obstruct vision on the roadway or do we even want signs in the median at all?

TOTENBERG: The League of City's Brinton disagrees.

BRINTON: Election signs - that's going to be a very difficult area of the law to address if you're going to do a one-size-fits-all.

TOTENBERG: Indeed in Arizona. It is the state that dictates the regulations for political signs. And the state law generally permits signs that are much bigger than those permitted by local governments for other purposes. Today, 6 to 3 decision written by Justice Thomas was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito and Sotomayor. Justice Alito, however, wrote a separate concurrence for himself and Kennedy and Sotomayor. That decision seemed to be aimed at preventing hysteria over impending chaos in local communities. Alito listed a half-dozen rules that he said would easily pass muster. Properly understood, he said, today's decision will not prevent cities from regulating signs in a way that fully protects public safety and serves legitimate aesthetic interests.

The court's second ruling today upheld the speech rights of state governments in refusing to issue specialty license plates. Specifically here, the court upheld Texas's right to refuse to issue a specialty license plate proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and featuring a Confederate flag. Writing for the five justice majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said that license plates are essentially government issued IDs such that a reasonable observer would associate the speech on the plate with the state. And, he said, a driver intending on conveying a message doesn't need to put it on a license plate. The driver could put the same message on a large bumper sticker. Former Texas Solicitor General John Mitchell now at the Hoover Institution.

JOHN MITCHELL: It means quite a bit. It vindicates what we've said throughout this whole litigation, that the images and messages on state-issued license plates are government speech. And that means the state can put whatever it wants on its license plates, and it can keep whatever it wants off those license plates.

TOTENBERG: Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett said today's ruling should put an end to disputes in the courts over pro-life and pro-choice license plates.

RICHARD GARNETT: Whether or not a state has choose-life plates or pro-choice plates or no plates is going to depend more on - is going to depend primarily on what the elective representatives decide to do.

BLOCK: And Nina, before we let you go, there are still some high-profile cases that we're waiting on decisions for. How many decisions are still to come?

TOTENBERG: There are 10 still awaiting public announcement and probably being finished - same-sex marriage, the challenge to the bans on same-sex marriage, the challenge to the way Obamacare is enforced and the subsidies that exist in 34 states. It's a statutory challenge. There's a challenge involving the cocktail used by most death-penalty states in lethal injection because they no longer can get their hands on a genuine anesthesia. There's a case testing independent redistricting commissions, whether they can substitute for state legislatures in order to take some of the politics out of the systems. And there's more, as they say (laughter).

BLOCK: That doesn't add up to 10.

TOTENBERG: No.

BLOCK: There's still other ones. Some of these cases, obviously, you know, the justices have been thinking about for a very long time. What's going on at this point?

TOTENBERG: Well, the deadline for submitting any remaining dissents, circulating them inside the court, was in fact this past Monday. And what goes on at this point is very intensive struggle over the language of these opinions. And when you go back and historically look at what went on, there are dozens and dozens of drafts, sometimes four or five fighting over a phrase or a sentence. And that is what they're doing right now. I suspect the outcome is pretty clear but not how to get there.

BLOCK: OK, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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