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Back row (left to right): Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito and Elena Kagan. Front row (left to right): Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Wikipedia)

The Supreme Court already has heard a case this fall about a busted brake light. Why not vanity license plates?

The justices agreed to decide whether Texas was right to deny a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate flag, or whether it infringed on free speech.

In doing so, the court held in abeyance another case in which North Carolina approved a “Choose Life” license plate but denied one defending a woman’s right to choose.

The cases present two issues that have come up repeatedly in lower courts: Do vanity plates speak for the government that issues them or the driver that displays them? And does the First Amendment say anything goes—or require equal treatment?

The justices have been squarely on the side of free speech in most cases recently, even when it involved distasteful protests at military funerals or disgusting “animal crush” videos. On Monday, several justices expressed concern that a Pennsylvania man’s conviction—for making what appeared to be threats on his Facebook page—went too far.

But the First Amendment right is not unlimited, particularly when it is applied unevenly. The Supreme Court refused to intervene on South Carolina’s behalf a decade ago after a lower court blocked “Choose Life” license plates there.

In the Texas case, the license plate was sought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A federal district judge ruled the state’s refusal was constitutional. But an appeals court reversed in a 2-1 vote and said the license plate should be issued. Texas then brought the case to the Supreme Court.

Written by Richard Wolf / USA Today
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