Specialty License Plates as Government Speech: How the Supreme Court Is Likely to Resolve a Five-Way Circuit Split

Author: Rebecca Dussich, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Currently, all fifty states in the U.S. require vehicles to be registered and fitted with a unique license plate. Historically, these plates were generic and distinguishable only by the series of letters and numbers used to identify the owner of the vehicle. However, with time, license plates were customized by state with distinctive markers such as state seals, slogans, flags, etc.[1] Beginning around the late 1980’s, states began issuing specialty license plates, decorated with emblems and verbiage designed by non-profit organizations and political groups, as a means to generate additional revenue.[2] As these plates became more popular, litigation around the First Amendment implications of specialty plates increased.[3] But, thirty years later, debate over this issue—whether specialty plates qualify as government or private speech and to what extent states have the right to champion one viewpoint or another via this forum—is anything but settled. In fact, the Supreme Court is set to readdress the matter later this year through review of a dispute out of the Fifth Circuit. And, although license plate text may seem like a mundane legal issue, the Court’s decision here could have potentially far-reaching implications.

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