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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: US has right not to endorse Confederacy

Although a seemingly simple and agreeable issue, freedom of speech has proven itself to be a tricky conundrum for governments and citizens alike. The latest complication stems from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who wish to fund and sponsor a Texas license plate with the Confederate flag. The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in the case of the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans suing for this right.

The case began when the Sons of Confederate Veterans approached the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles with a design for a Confederate flag specialty license plate. Citing offensive public association with the symbol, the Texas DMV denied the design. The Sons were outraged and challenged the DMV’s refusal as an attack on their freedom of speech.

On its surface, one may be inclined toward legal support for the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ position. If the group is paying for the license plates and requires no government appropriations, then why should it not be allowed? Although we may disagree with the message, who are we or the Texas DMV to determine what can and cannot be on a private citizen’s car?

Speaking with Toni Massaro of the James E. Rogers College of Law, however, revealed some crucial distinctions in the field of free speech law.

“Free speech doctrine is especially concerned about ‘viewpoint discrimination,’” she said. “So, if the state allows one message, it cannot deny access to another on the same subject matter that expresses a different viewpoint.”

But if the government, or a government entity, is the one making the speech, then certain guidelines are legally allowed to be in place. This comes from a distinction between “public forum speech,” which rarely allows for the limiting of speech, and “limited forum”/“government speech,” which carries much different rules.

Speech appearing on license plates, whether or not the government pays for it, still appears to be endorsed by the government. License plates are government issued, therefore making any messages that appear on them implicitly supported by the government.

The Supreme Court needs to hold up the distinction between speech from a government entity and speech from a private citizen or business.

The Confederate flag, although historic, carries a racist significance obvious to many Americans. It represents an institution that supported the legal enslavement of African-Americans and purported a philosophy of racial hierarchy in every facet of society.

The state of Texas — or any government — has a right not to promote a message that evokes racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or other hateful speech. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, then any group including neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or other extremist groups should have the legal authority to draft their own license plates as long as they pay extra fees.

These groups should have the right to express their views, but the government also has the right to reject putting these sentiments on official state speech.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the State of Texas, other political and controversial license plates may be recalled. For example, Arizona allowed pro-life license plates in 2009 in a similar debate. The case was ensnared in a six-year legal battle, but if this ruling goes against the Sons of Confederate Veterans, there could be renewed efforts to disallow a license plate with barefaced political speech.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk. Either way, advocates could make a slippery slope argument. We don’t want a government that can limit free speech, but we don’t want obviously offensive messaging on government forums.

Although this dilemma is complicated, the court can and should rule in favor of Texas. Government-sponsored speech has a right not to publish text it deems offensive to groups of people within society, but it cannot limit private speech.

“Our constitutional values here collide,” Massaro said. “We care deeply about free speech, but we also understand it is not absolute in all contexts.”

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Jacob Winkelman is a sophomore studying political science and English. Follow him on Twitter.

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