Motorists in Texas currently can put licence plates on their vehicles bearing anti-abortion slogans or the logo of their favourite team, or any of hundreds of other messages the state allows.
But a US Supreme Court decision could make it possible for drivers in the state to display Confederate flags, swastikas or even messages supporting Isis on licence plates, according to a report from the Associated Press.
The high court on Monday began discussing a case from Texas that could open up licence plates as a forum for free speech.
A group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans applied a few years ago for a licence plate in Texas bearing the Confederate flag in, a symbol from the American Civil War that is often considered racist, and the state refused.
The state argues that the messages that appear on licence plates are endorsed by the state and it is not required to display messages it does not endorse, such as the Confederate flag. The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit claiming the restriction was a violation of its First Amendment right to free speech.
The Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in favour of the Sons of Confederate Veterans last July, saying that a reasonable person would realise that the licence plates are private speech and not a state endorsement.
On Monday the case opened for debate in the Supreme Court and if the court rules in support of free speech, Texas could see licence plates supporting much more than the confederate flag.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the lawyer representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans that if the high court rules Texas must put the Confederate flag on licence plates, would it also have to protect licence plates with swastikas or the word “jihad”?
Yes, said James George Jr., the lawyer representing the Confederate group.
Justice Elena Kagan asked if the court would have to protect plates with “the most racial epithet you can imagine”.
Again, Mr George said yes.
A ruling in favour of free speech on licence plates likely would spell the end of states allowing special-interest licence plates.
All 50 states and Washington DC allow the specialty plates, for which states charge a premium fee and collect revenue. The AP reported that Texas made about $17.6 million last year from the plates.
Eleven states have thrown in their support to Texas on this case, worried that a Supreme Court ruling in favour of free speech would force the states to end the specialty licence plates, which often display state or national pride, or issues of interest to the states.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule in this case by late June.
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