Tag Archives: license plates

Who’s Talking?

Among the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court at the conclusion of this term was a little-noted one addressing the question whether states that sell specialty license plates can refuse to issue plates with controversial images like the Confederate flag. The ruling itself is less consequential (at least, in my view) that the opportunity if affords for a much-needed lesson in Constitutional analysis.

The First Amendment prohibits government from censoring the speech of its citizens. In the case before the Court, the Sons of Confederate Veterans claimed that Texas’ refusal to issue plates bearing a Confederate flag constituted such censorship.  But the Court could not analyze that claim until it decided what lawyers call a “preliminary” question: who is speaking through that state-issued license plate–the driver or the state?

Justice Steven Breyer, writing for the court’s majority, said that Texas’ program “constitutes government speech” and that the state was “entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design.” Just as the state could not force drivers to espouse a particular message, he said, drivers could not force a state to espouse theirs.

I think the Court got this one right. But it’s amazing how many people don’t understand the importance of determining who’s talking for First Amendment purposes.

Several years ago, plaintiffs sued Indiana’s General Assembly over legislative prayers claimed to violate the Establishment Clause. (The Courts have long allowed what we might term “de minimus” legislative prayers, so long as they are  brief and inclusive; many scholars–including this one–disagree with that admitted exception to the Establishment Clause, but it is what it is.) In Indiana, the prayers had gotten much longer and much more specifically Christian–one pastor, invited to the Speaker’s podium, had led the room in a rousing rendition of “Take a little walk with Jesus.” The District Court ruled that the practice violated the Establishment Clause and must stop, and all hell broke loose, with protestors complaining that religion had been censored.

It hadn’t.

I got several calls from local media, with breathless questions about a group of aggrieved pastors praying together at the back of the chamber–wasn’t that a violation of the Court’s order?

No, it wasn’t.

When a clergyman is invited to pray from the Speaker’s podium, as an official part of the legislative session, that prayer becomes state speech. The Establishment Clause prohibits government from endorsing or sponsoring religion. When individuals gather to pray, the Free Exercise Clause protects them against government interference.

Who is talking, who is praying, who is making the decision–makes all the difference.

The Bill of Rights only restrains government. That makes it pretty important to identify when government has acted.




Those Hits Keep Coming….

Ummn…how much longer must we endure this “short” legislative session?

And why are Indiana lawmakers so spooked by gay people?

This week alone, we’ve heard how the Girl Scouts are “really” in the business of producing commie feminist lesbians. Yesterday (while even  Brian Bosma was roaming the Statehouse halls passing out Girl Scout cookies and trying to distance himself from that particular bit of crazy), the Roads and Transportation Committee acted to save Indiana motorists from the calamities that would undoubtedly follow should the Bureau of Motor Vehicles allow the Indiana Youth Group to–gasp!–have a specialty license plate. (IYG supports gay youth. Oh, the shame…)

Now, in all fairness, the issuance of specialty license plates has proliferated, and there undoubtedly need to be some standards and controls. But everyone present understood the real target of the measure that would disqualify groups that “advocate for violation of federal or state law, violation of generally accepted ethical standards or societal behavioral standards or fund individual political candidates.” Furthermore, our moral stewards–er, legislators–will henceforth decide whether groups violate those rules. Can’t leave such pressing issues to the bureaucrats at the BMV.

In an effort to cloak the new rule with a veneer of impartiality, the measure requires–as a condition of approval–a burdensome amount of financial information from the petitioning nonprofits, 500 signatures of Indiana residents, and evidence of a “statewide public benefit from the use of the money the group would receive from the sale of license plates.” And each plate would have to be sponsored by a lawmaker and individually approved.

Because our elected officials don’t have anything more important to do than ensure the moral purity and “public benefit” of messages on Indiana’s license plates.

As this morning’s Star noted, “The changes come in the wake of controversy over the granting of a license plate to the Indiana Youth Group, which supports gay youths. That issue, though, was never discussed Wednesday by the House Roads and Transportation Committee.”

In order to prevent the predictable calamity that would occur if license plates bearing the legend “Indiana Youth Group” were allowed to roam freely over Indiana highways, the committee eliminated plates for the Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police, IU Health, Indiana Soccer, the Zoo, the Marine Foundation and Ducks Unlimited. (Just as well. You can’t ever tell what those ducks might be up to…)

Bottom line to all this foolishness–the legislature wants to pick and choose which organizations’ messages the state will “endorse” by allowing them to sell specialty license plates. The Free Speech clause of that pesky First Amendment says that is exactly what government cannot do. It’s called “content neutrality”–meaning that government can’t allow some messages and disallow others.

If the legislature doesn’t want let IYG operate under the same rules as everybody else, there’s no need for this sort of elaborate kabuki theater.

Just get rid of the whole damn specialty license plate program.