Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Court of Appeals Overules Texas on Sons of Confederate Veterans License Plates

On July 14, a Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans ruled that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles had violated the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ free speech rights and engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” when it rejected the group's proposal for a specialty license plate in 2011. The panel opinion stated "that the only reason the board rejected the plate is the viewpoint it represents" and "this is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect against."

The panel decision is expected to force Texas to issue license plates with the Confederate battle flag. Texas would become the largest state to sell the plates, which feature the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896” and the red Confederate “battle flag” with blue bars and white stars. The judgment renewed the debate between those who say the symbol honors Confederate heritage and others who see it as racially offensive and hurtful. The approval means that Texas could join nine other states that issue plates honoring the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

An attorney for the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said the ruling reaffirms that “the government cannot step into an issue and silence one side while endorsing the viewpoint of the other side.” In response to the ruling, the president of the Texas NAACP called it is "a sad day for African-Americans and others victimized by hate groups in this state." He said the plate “marginalizes American citizens” and is akin to memorializing slavery.

The Texas Attorney General’s office, which represented the Department of Motor Vehicles, said it is considering options, such as requesting a hearing before the full appeals court or taking it to the US Supreme Court.

The Attorney General’s office said the Department of Motor Vehicles has “complete editorial control” over plate designs. The office said, does “not give anyone a right to commandeer the machinery of government to support their desired message.” The appeals court countered with, “The tortured procedural history that eventually led to the denial of Texas SCV’s plate demonstrates that the subjective standard of offensiveness led to viewpoint discrimination.”

The decision may have wide implications. The court said the tags should be considered as private speech and be protected by the First Amendment. The court also said the Department of Motor Vehicles' standard for what qualifies as offensive was too vague. The ruling may force states to tighten their standards or start issuing plates to groups whose positions may be offensive to other citizens. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,007 groups as active hate groups in the United States in 2012.The Sons of Confederate Veterans is not considered a hate group by the organization. The issue comes down to whether a state government has authority to prohibit objectionable words and symbols vs. free speech advocates.

What do think? Should states enact tighter standards? Does a state-issued plate imply that the state endorses the group and its beliefs? Should a state consider the impact on its other citizens even if it means violating free speech? How is a license plate representing a group different from a bumper sticker with the same message?

I wonder if the parties involved would object to another "sanitized" version.

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