Last year, the Arizona state Legislature created a “Don’t Tread on Me” special license plate that raises money for Tea Party groups in the state. Some of the strongest protest came from Tea Party members themselves, who objected to the government bureaucracy created to dole out the dollars.
At least nine states have approved a Sons of Confederate Veterans’ specialty plate, emblazoned with the Confederate flag. But several did so only after the group sued.
About half the states have approved the sale of “Choose Life” specialty license plates that benefit “pro-life” organizations that promote adoption over abortion. But those plates have been challenged in court in several states on First Amendment grounds, with opponents arguing “viewpoint discrimination” because there is no “pro-choice” alternative. The Supreme Court has let stand some state rulings barring production of the plates.
A central question in the debate: Are the state-issued specialty license plates government speech or private citizens’ speech?
The First Amendment applies to government efforts to restrict free speech; it doesn’t apply to the state itself. But if the state sanctions license plates for certain private organizations to broadcast their messages, is it the state talking? Or is just allowing some private citizens to talk while censoring others?
Those are some of the questions that the Indiana General Assembly will have to confront.
• Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI Statehouse bureau in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org