The DMV’s lunatic speech dictatorship
What do the Confederate flag, the words “Respect Choice” and the message “Choose Life” have in common? DMVs in many states are arbitrarily banning them from license plates.
Texas officials nixed the Confederate flag after an African-American pastor labeled it a symbol of oppression at a public hearing, though nine other states allow it.
New York officials sell specialized license plates that promote union membership — but not adoption. The state claims any message linked to a pro-life cause is “patently offensive.” North Carolina tried the opposite, authorizing pro-life plates but not pro-choice.
These officials are claiming to be peacekeepers, cracking down to avoid the possibility anyone could be insulted while driving.
Sorry, but that’s un-American.
The exchange of ideas, however controversial (some would say especially the controversial ones), has always been the bedrock of our democracy.
Dictatorships and Muslim theocracies silence controversial ideas by jailing dissidents and imposing blasphemy laws. Our Constitution bars government from doing that.
And it’s alarming to see government officials chipping away at our free-speech rights by censoring at whim what can be advertised on buses and subways — or displayed on the license plates of our own private cars and trucks.
Within a few days, the US Supreme Court will rule in a case pitting Texas DMV officials against the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The stakes are far higher than whether Texans can display the Confederate flag on their plates.
Lower courts in many states, including New York and North Carolina, are waiting for guidance on how far government officials can go to scrub our highways, mass transit and other public places of political and cultural controversy.
The New York state DMV commissioner has total power to scrub the messages on plates. State regulations say “no plate shall be issued that is . . . in the discretion of the commissioner, obscene, lewd, lascivious, derogatory to a particular ethnic or other group, or patently offensive.”
The Children’s First Foundation requested plates picturing two smiling toddlers with the words “Choose Life.” The DMV refused, saying the issue was “politically sensitive,” and “a significant segment of the population” would find it offensive.
An official even speculated the words could be construed to be anti-abortion and provoke “road rage.” Really.
Astoundingly, on May 22, a federal appeals court upheld the New York DMV’s power to pick and choose by a 2-1 vote. The lone dissenting judge, Debra Ann Livingston, ridiculed the ruling, and with good reason.
Quoting former Chief Justice William Brennan, Livingston explained that the Constitution is shredded “when the determination of who may speak and who may not is left to the unbridled discretion of a government official.”
Livingston mocked the DMV’s pretense that specialty plates promoting union membership are politically neutral.
Ever heard of right-to-work laws and charter schools? she asked.
The good news is that the appeals court’s flawed decision is provisional, pending whatever the Supreme Court rules in the Texas case.
That ruling’s reach will go well beyond license plates. It will also determine how public-transit agencies handle controversial ads on trains and buses.
Just weeks ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority imposed draconian censorship rules limiting who can advertise on New York-area transit.
The MTA rejects ads criticizing “the action, inaction, prospective action or policies of a governmental entity.” Stalin couldn’t do better.
Should public-transit officials be able to pick and choose who advertises? No, says the American Civil Liberties Union, which also weighed in on license plates.
The ACLU repeated Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous observation that the answer to offensive speech is “more speech, not enforced silence.”
Government censorship is pushing us toward what George Orwell described in his famous novel “1984.” In it, the public is bombarded with government messages from loudspeakers and billboards everywhere, with no competing voice.
In a few days, the justices will decide whether to continue our nation’s commitment to freedom of expression, even when it means tolerating messages we don’t like — or whether we have to live in an Orwellian world where government does our thinking for us.
Betsy McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.