Earlier today, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veteransthat messages on license plates are not private speech protected by the First Amendment. In a 5-4 ruling, the majority justices upheld the state of Texas’ right to decline designs for customized plates, including the Confederate battle flag design at the heart of the case.
This case is very, very interesting. Nowhere in American politics do cultural proxy wars play out more vividly than in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court, and Walker is a notable example of the court’s breadth of abstraction. Here’s Big Think’s Steven Maziewriting for The Economist, explaining the nuances of the case:
“If [the court] sided with the state of Texas, which had refused the Sons’ application to issue a special licence plate bearing the Confederate flag, the justices may be seen as giving state officials the green light to engage in official censorship. But a ruling in favour of the Sons would seem to force Texas to grant requests for licence plates with racial epithets, swastikas, or paeans to terrorism, which may ultimately force the state to shut down its specialty plate programme altogether and forfeit the millions of dollars it collects from drivers each year.
Slippery slopes whichever way you turn.”
On the surface this is a cut-and-dry free speech case. The question ism “Who speaks through a customized license plate: the government or the driver?” If it’s the former, then a free speech challenge holds no water. If the latter, the government is effectively censoring its citizens. The five justice majority stuck with the former. Justice Samuel Alito, author of the dissenting opinion and a firm adherent of the latter opinion, attacked the decision as establishing a dangerous precedent.
So, in actuality, the case most notable for being about Confederate flag license plates isn’t really about Confederate flags as much as it is about license plates. Or is it? One could argue that this is just one battle in a larger conflict between advocates of Confederate legacy and detractors who consider Confederate symbolism to be unbecoming and racist. License plates were today’s battleground, and the Court was able to rule on a matter of free speech, but the actors in this play will simply switch venues for the next performance. On the surface, this is about license plates. Beneath, it’s about a whole lot more.
One final thought: Although they didn’t plan it this way, the Court’s ruling forms an interesting harmony when juxtaposed against last night’s events in Charleston, South Carolina, where a walking piece of garbage disguised as a human murdered nine people at a historically black church. It’s almost like a poetic call-and-response. A reaction. A way for the folks in charge to say, “This isn’t going to be tolerated.”
Of course, this is all just coincidence dancing in place of design, but rationality tends to take a back seat in times like these, and rightfully so.
UPDATE — 18:33 EDT
Turns out Dylann Roof, the aforementioned walking garbage, had Confederate license plates, albeit not official government-issued ones. Again, rationally speaking, this is a meaningless coincidence when placed alongside the Court’s ruling. But, as a fan of poetry, I can’t help but feel there’s a rhyme scheme at work beneath today’s events.
Below, author Clint Smith’s take on last week’s big race-story: Rachel Dolezal:
Photo credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)