Early in 2015 some folks in my adopted state of Florida wanted three Confederate veterans to become members of the Veterans’ Hall of Fame. Despite the efforts of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans, the initial attempt failed on the grounds that the Confederate veterans were not United States’ veterans. Not to be outdone, the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans want to have an official Texas license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag. While custom license plates are allowed in the United States, the states generally review proposed plates. The Texas department of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposed plate on the grounds that “a significant portion of the public associate[s] the Confederate flag with organizations” expressing hatred for minorities. Those proposing the plate claim that this violates their rights. This has generated a legal battle that has made it to the US Supreme Court.
The legal issue, which has been cast as a battle over free speech, is certainly interesting. However, my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. This is, obviously enough, also a battle over rights.
Looked at in terms of the right of free expression, there are two main lines of contention. The first is against allowing the plate. One way to look at an approved license plate is that it is a means of conveying a message that the state agrees with. Those opposed to the plate have argued that if the state is forced to allow the plate to be issued, the state will be compelled to be associated with a message that the government does not wish to be associated with. In free speech terms, this could be seen as forcing the state to express or facilitate a view that it does not accept.
This does have a certain appeal since the state can be seen as representing the people (or, perhaps, the majority of the people). If a view is significantly offensive to a significant number of citizens (which is, I admit, vague), then the state could reasonably decline to accept a license plate expressing or associated with that view. So, to give some examples, the state could justly decline Nazi plates, pornographic plates, and plates featuring racist or sexist images. Given that the Confederate flag represents to many slavery and racism, it seems reasonable that the state not issue such a plate. Citizens can, of course, cover their cars in Confederate flags and thus express their views.
The second line of contention is in favor of the plate. One obvious line of reasoning is based on the right of free expression: citizens should have the right to express their views via license plates. These plates, one might contend, do not express the views of the state—they express the view of the person who purchased the plate.
In terms of the concerns about a plate being offensive, Granvel Block argued that not allowing a plate with the Confederate flag would be “as unreasonable” as the state forbidding the use of the University of Texas logo on a plate “because Texas A&M graduates didn’t care for it.” On the one hand, Block has made a reasonable point: if people disliking an image is a legitimate basis for forbidding its use on a plate, then any image could end up being forbidden. It would, as Block noted, be absurd to forbid schools from having custom plates because rival schools do not like them.
On the other hand, there seems to be an important difference between the logo of a public university and the battle flag of the Confederacy. While some Texas A&M graduates might not like the University of Texas, the University of Texas’ logo does not represent states that went to war against the United States in order to defend slavery. So, while the state should not forbid plates merely because some people do not like them, it does seem reasonable to forbid a plate that includes the flag representing, as state Senator Royce West said, “…a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, mass murder…”
The lawyer representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, R. James George Jr., has presented an interesting line of reasoning. He notes, correctly, that Texas has a state holiday that honors veterans of the Confederacy, that there are monuments honoring Confederate veterans and that the gift shop in the capitol sells Confederate memorabilia. From this he infers that the Department of Motor Vehicles should follow the state legislature and approve the plate.
This argument, which is an appeal to consistency, does have some weight. After all, the state certainly seems to express its support for Confederate veterans (and even the Confederacy) and this license plate is consistent with this support. To refuse the license plate on the grounds that the state does not wish to express support for what the Confederate flag stands for is certainly inconsistent with having a state holiday for Confederate veterans—the state seems quite comfortable with this association.
There is, of course, the broader moral issue of whether or not the state should have a state holiday for Confederate veterans, etc. That said, any arguments given in support of what the state already does in regards to the Confederacy would seem to also support the acceptance of the plate—they seem to be linked. So, if the plate is to be rejected, these other practices must also be rejected on the same grounds. But, if these other practices are to be maintained, then the plate would seem to fit right in and thus, on this condition, also be accepted.
I am somewhat divided on this matter. One view I find appealing favors freedom of expression: any license plate design that does not interfere with identifying the license number and state should be allowed—consistent with copyright law, of course. This would be consistent and would not require the state to make any political or value judgments. It would, of course, need to be made clear that the plates do not necessarily express the official positions of the government.
The obvious problem with such total freedom is that people would create horrible plates featuring pornography, racism, sexism, and so on. This could be addressed by appealing to existing laws—the state would not approve or reject a plate as such, but a plate could be rejected for violating, for example, laws against making threats or inciting violence. The obvious worry is that laws would then be passed to restrict plates that some people did not like, such as plates endorsing atheism or claiming that climate change is real. But, this is not a problem unique to license plates. After all, it has been alleged that officials in my adopted state of Florida have banned the use of the term ‘climate change.’
Another view I find appealing is to avoid all controversy by getting rid of custom plates. Each state might have a neutral, approved image (such as a loon, orange or road runner) or the plates might simply have the number/letters and the state name. This would be consistent—no one gets a custom plate. To me, this would be no big deal. But, of course, I always just get the cheapest license plate option—which is the default state plate. However, some people regard the license plate as important and their view is worth considering.