Supreme Court renders decisions on First Amendment

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today at the Supreme Court, two significant rulings on the First Amendment.

The court ruled 5-4 that the Texas state government has the right to not issue Confederate Flag license plates. And, in a unanimous decision, the court said the sign ordinance in the town of Gilbert, Arizona, was too restrictive of a local church.

For more on these cases, as always, is Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal."

Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, "The National Law Journal": Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Welcome.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let's take this Texas license plate case.

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was a case that was brought on behalf of the Confederate — Sons of Confederate Veterans.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

They wanted to have a specialty license plate that included the Confederate Battle Flag. The state of Texas turned them down. They had a number of public comments finding that display offensive.

The Supreme Court today ruled that Texas didn't violate the First Amendment rights of this organization. Justice Breyer wrote the opinion. He said that this is not private speech protected by the First Amendment. What appears on your license plate is government speech. Government has traditionally used license plates to convey messages. It uses license plates for identification and registration of drivers, and the state ultimately has the authority to decide what goes on the license plate.

He asked, why would this organization prefer its message on a license plate, instead of maybe a bumper sticker next to the license plate? And he said, perhaps it's because they want the message to appear to be the official message of the state.

But, just as the state can't compel a private party to convey a state message that it disagrees with, he said, the Sons of Confederate Veterans can't compel the state to convey a message with which it disagrees.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the dissenters, among other things, argued that these license plates are — can issue a private — that they are privately owned, privately controlled.

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Alito wrote the dissent, and he said, this is private speech protected by the First Amendment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARCIA COYLE: And Texas' denial of the display was blatant viewpoint discrimination. He said, how could any reasonable person looking at a display plate that says "Rather Be Golfing" think that was the official message of the state?

JUDY WOODRUFF: How common, Marcia, for Justice Clarence Thomas to vote with the four liberal justices?

MARCIA COYLE: I wouldn't say it's common, but I would also say it's not unusual to see crossovers between the left and the right sides of the bench.

And I think it's a reminder to us that these are not monolithic blocs on the court, and there are certain issues where they do disagree even within their particular ideological groupings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And interesting, this, of course, had to do with the Confederate Flag.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let's talk about the Arizona decision. This was a case about regulating road signs and involved a church and where it wanted to put a directional sign.

MARCIA COYLE: Right. Right.

Gilbert, Arizona, had a sign code, and it categorized signs as ideological, political, and directional. The Good News Community Church need directional signs because it didn't have a permanent home. It had to tell people where it was meeting each week. They ran afoul of the time limits on temporary directional signs.

They sued the town, saying that their First Amendment speech rights were being violated. And today, in a unanimous decision, Justice Thomas, he wrote that the town did violate the First Amendment rights of this church.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, some of the dissenters, at least one of them, pointed out that their concern is that this could have wider repercussions, that this could affect what many cities do around the country.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

The reason for that is, Justice Thomas applied the Constitution's toughest test for constitutionality to this town's sign code. He said that the code was content-based, and it had to survive strict scrutiny. That is, the town could only keep its code if it could justify it as serving a compelling government interest and it was narrowly tailored to do that. And he said that the code was hopelessly underinclusive.

Justice Kagan, as you just noted…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not a dissenter. I misspoke. She was expressing concern about this.

(CROSSTALK)

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly.

She said that this code was so unconstitutional, it could have failed under lesser scrutiny, but because Justice Thomas applied the toughest scrutiny, she felt that many reasonable sign codes will be challenged and may also be struck down. And she said the Supreme Court itself may become a supreme board of sign review as those cases get to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, language we're going to remember.

Marcia Coyle, and big decisions to come from this court in the weeks to come.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. We — I think we have about 11 left, same-sex marriage, major challenge to a health care law. The court will meet again Monday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle, we thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.

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