WASHINGTON, June 18 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas can refuse a license plate that features the confederate flag, rejecting a free-speech challenge from a heritage group.
Justice Clarence Thomas, seen as conservative, joined the four liberal justices in agreeing the flag can be kept off Texas license plates after the Sons of Confederate Veterans sought a plate with the flag and its logo.
The ruling declares that license plates are "government speech" and the First Amendment does not apply, potentially setting a precedent that other states could use in determining their own rulings on similar issues.
The four conservative justices called the decision an assault on free speech.
"Messages that are proposed by private parties and placed on Texas specialty plates are private speech, not government speech. Texas cannot forbid private speech based on its viewpoint. That is what it did here. Because the Court approves this violation of the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent," Justice Samuel Alito wrote.
In the case, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., the nine justices needed to determine "whether the messages and images that appear on state-issued specialty license plates qualify as government speech immune from any requirement of viewpoint neutrality," according to SCOTUSblog.
The justices looked to see if Texas committed "viewpoint discrimination" when it rejected the license plate design when the state has not previously issued license plates portraying the confederacy or its flag in a "negative or critical light."
There are more than 350 permitted messages in the state's license plate program. The case determined whether the license plate's message was being communicated by the government or by the driver.
The proposed plate, denied unanimously by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board in 2011, displays the word "Texas" at the top with a emblazoned Confederate flag at the center-left of the license plate dated 1896 and the phrase "Sons of Confederate Veterans" at the bottom.
The Confederate flag is often viewed as a symbolic part of the white-dominated, slave-owning racist culture of the American South during the Civil War.