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Licensing Facially Religious Government Speech: Summum’s Impact on the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses

87 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2009 Last revised: 28 Aug 2013

Scott W. Gaylord

Elon University School of Law

Date Written: August 28, 2009


It is the rare case that is decided solely on Free Speech grounds yet directly impacts the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Pleasant Grove City v. Summum is such a case. Although all nine Justices concurred in the judgment — that a privately donated monument in a public park is a form of “government speech” that is not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause — the case spawned five different opinions as the Justices attempted to explain the proper scope of the Court’s decision on the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses. This paper analyzes the interaction between Summum’s “recently minted” government speech doctrine and the Establishment Clause. In particular, with respect to the Free Speech Clause, I argue that Summum resolves an ongoing Circuit split regarding a common medium of expression — specialty license plates. Recently, six Circuits have reached at least three different conclusions with respect to the status of specialty license plates, and two other Circuits have addressed the First Amendment issue in passing. In addition, a petition for writ of certiorari has been submitted seeking Supreme Court review of a 2008 Seventh Circuit case dealing with this very issue. I maintain that Summum’s new test for government speech is inconsistent with the test that the majority of Circuits has applied to specialty plates. Whereas the majority considers whether a reasonable observer would identify the government as the speaker, Summum focuses on the level of control that the government has over the specialty plate program. Under Summum’s “control” test, many (and possibly all) specialty plate programs — as well as many other forms of speech that are subject to government control — are government speech and, therefore, are exempt from First Amendment scrutiny. Moreover, I contend that Summum’s control test necessarily alters the Court’s analysis of facially religious government speech under the Establishment Clause. Although the Establishment Clause still applies to government speech, the endorsement test does not. To understand why, the paper explores the effect of the government speech doctrine on an issue of first impression — a specialty license plate containing the phrase “I Believe” and a picture of a cross superimposed on a stained glass window. Although the lower court concluded that the plate violated the endorsement test, Summum changes the analysis. Under Summum, the government has the right to say what it wants even though the government’s intended message may differ significantly from the message that observers ascribe to the government. As a result, when dealing with government speech, Justice O’Connor’s “reasonable observer” test focuses on the wrong party — the reasonable observer instead of the government speaker. That is, when determining whether facially religious government speech violates the Establishment Clause post-Summum, the Court must determine whether the government actually has an improper religious motive, not whether a reasonable person interprets the message as impermissibly religious. I conclude that a majority of the current Court is apt to apply the control test and hold that the “I Believe” specialty plate is constitutional.

Keywords: Free Speech, First Amendment, Government Speech

Suggested Citation

Gaylord, Scott W., Licensing Facially Religious Government Speech: Summum’s Impact on the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses (August 28, 2009). Elon University Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-10. Available at SSRN: or

Scott W. Gaylord (Contact Author)

Elon University School of Law ( email )

201 N. Greene Street
Greensboro, NC 27401
United States

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