‘Don’t Tread on Me’ License Plates

States are sponsoring an increasingly controversial image.

NPR (“A Florida license plate has reopened the debate over the ‘Don’t tread on me’ flag“):

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently tweeted an image of what he said was a new state license plate featuring a coiled rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me,” he said it sends a “clear message to out-of-state cars.”

So, I’m not sure sending messages to out-of-state cars is what license plates are for. And, especially for a state that thrives on tourism, unfriendly ones are particularly foolish.

The imagery of the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag dates to Benjamin Franklin but has, for many, come to symbolize a far-right extremist ideology and the “Stop the Steal” movement that sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

“‘Love, love, love’ Florida Gov. DeSantis new license plate; ‘Don’t Tread on Me!'” one Twitter user said. “This is how we feel about our great country..that is right now being systematically destroyed by the radical Left.”

How the Gadsden flag came to represent “Stop the Steal” is unclear to me but it had long been adopted by libertarians and Tea Party types.

But such plates have gotten push back, not only in Florida, but in states such as Kansas, Missouri and Virginia, where similar plates have been available, in some cases for years, as fundraising tools for various organizations.

“The state can’t claim a lack of knowledge about what this image represents to most of the public,” says Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research and analysis for the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

She says it’s become clear that the flag has been used for some “really awful” causes, most notably the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, where violent protesters attacked police as part of an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The proliferation of organizational and other customized license plates has been ongoing around the country for decades. As we’ve gone from plates hand-made by prisoners, usually with a solid background with contrasting numbers and letters in a single color, to computer-printed plates that can be rather ornate, there has been a lot of opportunity to raise additional revenue from those wanting to represent some organization or cause. Alabama was doing that as far back as I can remember and Virginia, where I have lived almost exactly 20 years to the day now, is supposedly the state with the highest percentage of customized and personalized tags.

The plates I used to illustrate the post are in fact rather popular here and have been for quite some time. A report from 2013 had some 22,000 of them currently on the road. Because they’ve been around so long, I don’t associate them with the Stop the Steal movement or even Trumpers per se. But, in my unscientific but widespread sampling, I have determined that those who have them on their vehicles seem to have a disproportionate propensity to be asshole drivers.

Carroll Rivas compares it to a similar controversy over the use of the Confederate “stars and bars” flag on license plates. In 2009, the group Confederate Veterans, Inc., requested the flag on a specialty license plate, but Texas refused. The veterans group sued, and the case ultimately went to the Supreme Court. In 2015, in a 5-4 decision, the court held that such specialty plates (not to be confused with “vanity plates”) were government speech and therefore states have the right to pick and choose what goes on them.

That case was odd, indeed, and may or may not hold up. The majority opinion was written by Stephen Breyer, who is now retired, and joined by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—with Clarence Thomas, of all people, providing the deciding vote. The dissent was written by Samuel Alito and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and two departed justices, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. It’s anyone’s guess whether that precedent would be followed by the current group.

While I could preach the issue of whether these tags constitute “private speech” or “government speech” either way, I tend to side with the point made by Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller in oral argument: “that while people are free to festoon their cars with bumper stickers saying whatever they want, they cannot force the government to give its stamp of approval to those messages.” Surely, the state shouldn’t be forced to sell “Ku Klux Klan” tags if the requisite 500 people (or whatever the number; it’s usually rather low) commit to purchasing them.

Benjamin Franklin was the first to use the rattlesnake as a symbol of defiance against the British crown, says Marc Leepson, a journalist, historian and author of Flag: An American Biography. In 1775Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolina politician, “took that menacing rattle rattlesnake and put it on the flag,” Leepson says.

“One thing we can say about its origins, regardless of how it’s used or who uses it or why it’s used today, is that it really was just completely an anti-British [and] anti-colonial symbol,” he says.

The journalist Rob Walker, writing in The New Yorker in 2016, said, “The Gadsden design remained something of a Revolutionary relic for many years.” However, “[by] the nineteen-seventies, it had some popularity in Libertarian circles, as a symbol of ideological enthusiasm for minimal government and the rights of individuals.”

It seems like something I’ve always seen around. And it has been used off and on over the years as an official symbol of the US Navy. But it clearly took off in a big way with the Tea Party movement.

Then came the Tea Party movement, which adopted the banner in 2010 as a sort of catch-all symbol of disgust with government. Since then, it has gone on to become a symbol for anti-government groups and individuals.

Extreme or not, First Amendment scholars such as Eugene Volokh of the University of Southern California say the Gadsden flag and the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto are legitimate — and protected — speech, whether they are on a flag waving inside the besieged U.S. Capitol or on a vehicle license plate heading down a Florida highway.

“We know that some people are upset by that slogan,” Volokh says. But, “the government is perfectly entitled to take controversial stands or in this case stands that have become newly controversial because some very small group of people have ended up using a symbol for purposes that are very different” from what it originally signified.

I bow to Volokh’s superior expertise in First Amendment law but, again, the most recent (only?) SCOTUS ruling went the other way.

Other political and potentially controversial slogans routinely appear on license plates across the country, says Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

“I’ve seen some ‘Live free or die’ license plates in New Hampshire, which of course has been the state motto for decades,” Dallek says. “You could argue that that certainly is a political statement” with a “fairly strong libertarian streak.” District of Columbia plates, which have long sported the colonial-era rallying cry “No taxation without representation” are also in that vein, he says.

“But I think that ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ has different, more extreme connotations, and therefore is more political and certainly is much more politicized,” Dallek adds.

That’s a slippery slope, of course. Obviously, there are groups and ideas that almost everyone considers “extreme.” But the Tea Party could just as easily have adopted “Live Free or Die” over its more active counterpart. Would it then become an “extreme” slogan?

Politicized plates are available for other hot-button issues, as well. For example, “Trust Women/Respect Choice” is an option in Virginia, just as “Choose Life” is available on plates in Nebraska.

Rather obviously, whether plates are private or government speech, allowing “Respect Choice” and not “Choose Life” plates or vice-versa would constitute viewpoint discrimination. Virginia sells both (“Choose Life” is here). I’m not seeing a pro-choice plate available in Nebraska, but it’s possible that there simply hasn’t been a group sponsor for it.

In the states where “Don’t Tread on Me” plates have been introduced, they appear to be top sellers. And that’s good news for the Florida Veterans Foundation, a veterans’ advocacy group that stands to get $25 per Gadsden flag license plate.

But it hasn’t been an easy road, says Chairman Dennis Baker. The choice of the Gadsden flag was made not by the group, but by a lawmaker pushing for the fundraising plate in 2019. “I think it was because other states were having such good success with it,” he says.

He says the money the foundation hoped to raise could go a long way toward helping Florida veterans.

“Then January 6th happened and it was like, ‘oh, s***,'” he says. By then it was too late, because Florida’s legislature had already approved the design.

That’s a rather amusing irony—the controversial plate is raising money for a rather uncontroversial cause, the leaders of which didn’t even choose the plate design.

The opposite was true in Kansas:

While Florida introduced the plate design in 2019, Virginia and Missouri did so a decade ago. Kansas approved the “Don’t Tread on Me” plates only weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, when television images of rioters waving the flag were still fresh.

Democrat Dinah Sykes, minority leader in the Kansas Senate, opposed the measure when it came up for a vote in March of last year. “Whatever the original symbology of [the Gadsden flag] was … I think a lot of people would argue that it’s become a symbol of the people who marched on the Capitol,” she says.

The plate design, meant to raise funds for the Kansas State Rifle Association, was subsequently vetoed by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, before the Republican-controlled legislature overrode it.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” says Sykes, who is the Kansas Senate minority leader. “When I see that, whether it’s a flag or a license plate … it’s not a good feeling for me.”

Sigh.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kurtz says:

    Ha! I saw one the other day and thought, “Can I get a Black Lives Matter one?”

    3
  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “Don’t Tread on Me,” he said it sends a “clear message to out-of-state cars.”

    Hey Ron? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but my truck never graduated kindergarten. It is functionally illiterate. FTR, so is your car.

    As for the Gadsden flag. I want to have a stamp made that will impress a footprint with the word “corporations” spelled out in it on every Gadsden bumper sticker I come across in the local WalMart parking lot. I want one, but not enough to go to the effort of procuring one.

  3. JohnSF says:

    Surely it should read: “Please don’t run over me!”

  4. Jc says:

    In VA that is a Tea Party plate. It has been around so long now. Many that have it now just think it looks cool etc.. When I see it I think TP, but know many who have it because it’s cool looking. But yeah, in VA, as you note, it’s a Type A driver plate lol. Cut you off on 66 and flip you the bird with a support the troops ribbon sticker lol. Such compassion

    2
  5. CSK says:

    Aren’t Confederate Veterans a little long in the tooth to be operating motor vehicles?

    4
  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    I don’t think that what Volokh said contradicts what the TX solicitor general said. Volokh appears to be say, “Yeah, the government can put this on a license if it wants to”. And also, the government can NOT put it on a license if it doesn’t want to.

    Honestly, it’s just eye rolling at this point. Wave a rattlesnake picture around all you like.

    Break into the Capitol, go to jail.

    5
  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    The Gadsden Flag is kinda like the OK hand sign. It was harmless once, but it’s increasingly becoming the case that when you see someone drawing attention to it, you know what they really mean.

    In this case, the Gadsden Flag is basically the replacement Confederate Flag now that the Confederate Flag isn’t socially acceptable.

    5
  8. gVOR08 says:

    Haven’t seen any plates yet in my little SW FL corner of paradise. I see the Gadsden flag in one format or another all the time, I expect the vets group will make some good money off them. I hope they continue to be a bit embarrassed by it. DeSantis’ comments are what you’d expect. The important thing is to impress the base that he’s owning the libs.

    The wide use of the Gadsden flag is an illustration of my misquote of Churchill, “Never in the course of history have so many been so pissed about so little.”

    1
  9. dazedandconfused says:
  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is another symptom of the crisis of masculinity: tactical gear, (onesies with extra pockets), body armor, extravagant beards, camo, tattoos, guns guns n’more guns, and lots of performative belligerence. Men who fell behind on the educational curve. Men who can’t get a date (incels). Men who think manliness is strutting around perfectly safe streets like they’re walking through Mogadishu. Men very upset that there’s a female Hulk.

    All these men cosplaying as soldiers who lack the physical, intellectual or psychological wherewithal to actually serve in the military. Hoorah! Yeah! Gonna fuck someone up! High-five! Grunt grunt grunt! 50 year-olds pretending they still have the testosterone of teenagers.

    I have a conflict between my empathetic (and political) understanding of the genuine anomie these men are feeling, and my contempt for them as specimens of manhood. The type isn’t new – every man has had to endure these twats all through our childhoods and school years. Long before they get around to making women want to throw up, we’ve already had to deal with them.

    Two big things have changed: one is the way they insist on parading their insecurity, over-sharing their weakness, and their refusal even at advanced ages, to grow the fuck up. The other is that there is a majority formed of most women and most men who are just sick of these assholes and are no longer afraid to say so.

    7
  11. Gustopher says:

    That’s a rather amusing irony—the controversial plate is raising money for rather uncontroversial cause, the leaders of which didn’t even choose the plate design.

    We need to get the Trevor Project or some similar organization to start sponsoring crazy ass Right Wing plates.

    Nothing would make Trumpers happier than discovering that they are donating money to help Trans Kids.

    5
  12. Scott F. says:

    From the NPR story referenced:

    “‘Love, love, love’ Florida Gov. DeSantis new license plate; ‘Don’t Tread on Me!’” one Twitter user said. “This is how we feel about our great country..that is right now being systematically destroyed by the radical Left.”

    While the radical left has been busy systematically destroying our great country, the patriotic right has been putting their efforts into vanity plates and really big Trump flags. No wonder these people feel they are losing the country. /snark

    5
  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Two big things have changed: one is the way they insist on parading their insecurity

    The cruel irony is they usually end up ultimately being the source of their own insecurity. There’s a lot of really weird people in this world that needed to, at a young age, find people to tell them that their weirdness is what made them beautiful. Instead they only found people who told them to be ashamed, and now they spend their lives slowly dying inside pretending to be the same as everyone else while trying to bully the weirdness out of others so no one will ever begin to realize they might be weird too.

    2
  14. Jen says:

    But the Tea Party could just as easily have adopted “Live Free or Die”

    Ugh, no.

    Seriously, it’s annoying AF that all of these wacko groups are co-opting existing flags and slogans etc.

    The Virginia Dare group and others, including the KKK, have at times adopted the “Betsy Ross” flag, turning that into a hate symbol. New Hampshire has had oodles of the Gadsden flags up for years, typically it’s flown by the Free Staters/Libertarians. Now it’s part of Trump’s crew?

    I can’t keep up.

    The lack of creativity is yet another sign of American decline.

    3
  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jen: Ugh, no.

    You misspelled “Yes.”

    The lack of creativity is yet another sign of American decline.

    Nah, otherwise whoever it was who said, “Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.” wouldn’t have.

  16. Kari Q says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Generally I agree but:

    Long before they get around to making women want to throw up, we’ve already had to deal with them.

    Unless you/ they went to an all boys school, they were making life miserable for girls at a very young age, and the girls were usually told “they’re only doing that because they like you.”

    5
  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kari Q:
    You are absolutely correct. Also, as it happens, I did do 2-4th grade in all-boys French schools. Hmmm.

  18. Kevin McKenzie says:

    @Jen: @Jen:

    No, I think that for whatever reason, the cultural right almost never has the cultural creatives in it. Probably because a hatred of things that are new make it hard to come up with new ideas.

    1
  19. ptfe says:

    @Jc: “In VA that is a Tea Party plate.”

    TIL that’s just a run-of-the-mill customized Virginia plate that does not do revenue sharing. Seriously, what gives? Why is Virginia sponsoring a plate that’s only associated with right-wing organizations? And how do I get a fine leftist brand in on that free advertising action?

  20. Jen says:

    @Kevin McKenzie: I was being a wee bit tongue-in-cheek with that statement. 😉

    @OzarkHillbilly: I really don’t like the notion of state mottos being co-opted by political parties or hate groups. New Hampshire’s “Live free or die” state motto is ripe for it, of course, but it still bugs me.