A battle over whether Texas license plates can bear an image of the Confederate flag will reach the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, when the state of Texas and a Confederate heritage group argue over the extent to which First Amendment freedoms protect offensive speech or images.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans applied in 2009 for a specialty license plate bearing the group’s logo, which features the flag of the Confederate States of America. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles denied the application after a number of groups including the Texas NAACP called the proposed plates offensive.
“To me, that symbol, the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo, is a veterans symbol. It honors the men who fought bravely in their homes against an invading army,” said Marshall Davis, a spokesman for the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “If you don’t let us have that, you are discriminating against our viewpoint that it is a symbol of heritage and honor and veterans.”
The group challenged the DMV’s decision in federal court, but a district judge upheld the state's decision to restrict what it determined to be offensive content. The Sons of Confederate Veterans appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court's decision. The court said the DMV had unlawfully discriminated against the Confederate group's beliefs that the flag was a symbol of Southern heritage in favor of those who were offended by it.
Davis said the key question is whether a government-issued license plate is a reflection of the government or the owner of the vehicle. “That’s the crust of the biscuit,” Davis said.
Before the appeals court, the Sons of Confederate Veterans argued that “any reasonable observer would view a specialty license plate as the speech of the individual driving the car,” according to the appellate court ruling. DMV officials countered that, because the state approves and owns the designs for specialty plates, they are effectively an expression of speech by the government as well as the driver.
Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP and an attorney in Austin, said the license plates were offensive either way.
“It’s not a private action,” Bledsoe said. “You don’t have a right to put any and everything on your license plate.”
According to Texas law, the DMV can deny an application for a specialty license plate “if the design might be offensive to any member of the public.”
Davis said the Sons of Confederate Veterans was the first group to be denied a specialty license plate. He pointed out that the state allowed a specialty plate with Christian symbols and another one with the words “Choose Life.”