A Test of Free Speech and Bias, Served on a Plate from Texas

Adam Liptak, New York Times, March 22, 2015

The next great First Amendment battleground is just six inches high. It is a license plate bearing the Confederate flag.

Nine states let drivers choose specialty license plates featuring the flag and honoring the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which says it seeks to celebrate Southern heritage. But Texas refused to allow the group’s plates, saying the flag was offensive.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to that decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, No. 14-144, a case that considers the limits of free expression and the meaning of a charged symbol that many associate with secession and slavery.

Texas has hundreds of specialty plates. Many are for college alumni, sports fans and service organizations, but others send messages like “Choose Life,” “God Bless Texas” and “Fight Terrorism.”

The state almost never rejects a proposed design. But the eight members of the board of its motor vehicles department deadlocked in April 2011 over whether to allow one featuring the Confederate flag. By the time the board next considered the question, in November 2011, civil rights groups had mobilized.

“They bused in high school kids,” recalled Granvel Block, a former commander of the heritage group’s Texas division. “They had preachers. It was a circus.”

Among those who spoke up against allowing the Confederate symbol was the Rev. George V. Clark, 82, an African-American minister. “It saddens me,” he told the board, “that the possibility even exists that I might still be driving around the state and frequently see something that represents hate, something that has made people feel less than human.”

The board then voted unanimously to reject the license plate. {snip}


The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a First Amendment challenge, winning in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans. The court said Texas had discriminated against the group’s view that “the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence and Southern heritage.”


Today, the flag appears on license plates in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the Confederate flag has only one fundamental meaning. “It’s a powerful symbol of the oppression of black people,” she said in an interview.

Texas has mounted a vigorous defense of its decision to reject the plates. “Our fundamental right to free speech must be protected, but that right does not include compelling the state of Texas to approve any image on state-issued license plates,” said Cynthia Meyer, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton.


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