Buried among the Supreme Court’s orders on Monday was a decision to vacate a Fourth Circuit ruling requiring North Carolina to make pro-choice license plates. Before that ruling, North Carolina made anti-abortion license plates—but refused to make any plates supporting abortion rights. The Fourth Circuit held that its rejection of pro-choice plates violated the First Amendment, and ordered the state to make plates reflecting both sides of the debate.
But then, in mid-June, the Supreme Court ruled, by a 5-4 vote, that Texas could ban Confederate flags on its license plates. License plate designs, the court held, constituted “government speech,” not private speech. Thus, states may refuse to make a proposed plate—purely on ideological grounds—without violating the freedom of speech. As I noted then, the decision, called Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, seemed destined to have ramifications in the abortion debate. Some states (like New York) permit only pro-choice plates. Some states (like North Carolina) permit only anti-abortion plates. The justices’ decision in Walker, I suggested, implicity condoned this blatant censorship.
On Monday, the court proved me right. By vacating the Fourth Circuit’s pro-speech ruling and directing it to reconsider the case in light of Walker, the justices all but ordered Fourth Circuit to reverse itself and allow the state’s censorship. Despite its rejection of a Confederate flag plate, Walker was not a victory for civility or tolerance. It was an invitation for states to engage in the suppression of expression.