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Supreme Court Says Texas Can Keep Confederate Flag off License Plates

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The effect of Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling is simple: The state of Texas is not required to issue license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag.

The state was sued by the Sons of Confederate Veterans after the organization's 2009 application for a specialty plate with the group's logo was turned down. Throughout the ensuing legal battle, Texas has insisted that license plates are essentially state speech. The SCA has argued that, because the state issues plates to brands like Dr Pepper and Austin's Mighty Fine hamburger chain, license plates are forums for free speech.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the state. The majority, an odd coalition of liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer with conservative Clarence Thomas, bought the argument that speech or iconography written on license plates can be limited by the state. Samuel Alito, writing a dissenting opinion, poked fun at that argument, noting that Texas issues plates meant for Florida Gators or Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans might indicate those team's were favored by the state of Texas, using the majority's logic.

Texas' law says the state will disallow a plate if it has the potential to offend someone, a murky standard.

"I think the line the state is trying to draw is a tough one. Texas seems to be drawing a line based on whether individuals might take offense at the message on the plates – in this case, a confederate flag. That’s not an easy line to draw since it seems that there is always somebody out there who will be offended by something, no matter how mundane. For example, wouldn’t a license plate featuring Dr Pepper offend Coke drinkers?," said Paul Collins, director of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts. 

That problem, aggrieved college football fans or Pepsi drinkers, is at least less of a morass than the state would have faced had the decision gone the other way. Jim George, the lawyer for the SCA, conceded during oral arguments that plates could be given to any organization, including jihadists and Nazis.

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