Monday, September 1, 2014


Texas looks to Supreme Court to block Confederate license plates

  /Texas Department of Motor Vehicles
Texas is fighting to block license plates featuring the Confederate flag. Its battle with the Sons of Confederate Veterans has lasted five years, longer than the Civil War.
AUSTIN — The legal sparring between Texas and supporters of a Confederate battle flag license plate has rumbled into its fifth year, even longer than the Civil War.
In the latest volley, the attorney general’s office has turned to the U.S. Supreme Court to help block the flag logo and other unwanted images on government-issued plates.
The state had long held off a Southern heritage group wanting to sell the tags until it sued and won last month in a federal appeals court. Now, the state has asked the Supreme Court to intervene because of conflicting decisions in similar cases across the country.
If they take up the case, the justices will be tackling a raucous freedom-of-speech dispute between the symbol’s backers, who say it honors Confederate veterans, and opponents, who say it’s racially offensive.
At stake: how much power states have in regulating controversial messages on government-issued property.
“The issue is ripe for this court’s resolution,” the attorney general’s office said in an Aug. 7 filing that outlined its arguments against the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ tag.
The group, which has clashed with the state since 2009 over the plate, has until early October to respond. It’s expected to highlight the appeals court’s opinion that the Department of Motor Vehicles engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” when it rejected the proposal.
John McConnell, the group’s attorney, has said that displaying the flag is protected free speech that can’t be restricted simply because it might upset someone.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ panel in New Orleans, siding with the veterans group, also said the DMV’s standards for what qualifies as offensive were too vague.
Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, representing the agency, said that court erred, leaving it unclear whether Texas could exclude “profanity, sacrilege or overt racism.”
“The notion that the Constitution requires states to maintain viewpoint neutrality when deciding whether to issue specialty license plates is unworkable and leads to absurdities,” the state said.
The plate, with the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896” encircling the red battle flag of blue bars and white stars, remains in limbo until the case is resolved.
Nine other states allow it. In seven of them, the Tennessee-based veterans group had to sue to get the plates. Those courts largely declared the emblem private speech that a government cannot restrict.
When it convenes next month, the Supreme Court will sift through nearly 10,000 petitions before picking the 80 to 90 cases it will hear in the session that ends in mid-2015.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based advocacy group, said he couldn’t predict if the court will take the Texas case. But he noted it looks for issues that have split lower courts and “cause people on both sides to get elevated blood pressure when they talk about it.”
The DMV has said that because the state manufactures and issues license plates, it should not be forced to put out designs the public opposes.
It received hundreds of comments against the plate. Elected officials, religious leaders, NAACP members and other critics called it a hurtful reminder of slavery.
The veterans group applied for the tag through a procedure separate from Texas’ specialty vendor, My Plates. The group said that the plate commemorates Confederate soldiers and that it would use the proceeds to fund memorial projects.
AT A GLANCE/Fight over license plates
Yes, then no: In 2009, a state Transportation Department advisory group voted in favor of the battle flag plate sought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Other agency officials didn't accept that, concerned about the uproar it had caused in other states. Without publicly disclosing the first vote, department leaders sent the proposal back to the advisory group. This time, it failed.
New agency, same outcome: The newly created Department of Motor Vehicles took over license plate approval duties in late 2009. Two years later, when the Confederate plate sponsors renewed their request, the DMV board deadlocked on a 4-4 vote. In November 2011, it unanimously rejected the plate, 8-0.
Turning to the courts: The veterans group in December 2011 sued the DMV in federal court. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in April 2013 said the state had authority to reject offensive designs. The group then took the case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which in July upheld its suit.
Next step: The appeals court ruling means the state would have to allow the plate. That’s now on hold as the state attorney general’s office, representing the DMV, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the case.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Texas Can't Prohibit Sale Of Confederate Flag License Plates, Court Rules

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A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Texas cannot prohibit the sale of a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag.
In a 2-1 decision, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state's Department of Motor Vehicles had violated the First Amendment in rejecting the Sons of Confederate Veterans' application for the specialty plates. According to the court's ruling, the state engaged in "viewpoint discrimination" by turning down the proposal as the plates reflect the opinion of the car's driver.
"By rejecting the plate because it was offensive, the Board discriminated against Texas SCV’s view that the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage," reads the majority opinion, penned by Judge Edward Prado. "The Board’s decision implicitly dismissed that perspective and instead credited the view that the Confederate flag is an inflammatory symbol of hate and oppression."
Prado continued: "Given Texas’s history of approving veterans plates and the reasons the Board offered for rejecting Texas SCV’s plate, it appears that the only reason the Board rejected the plate is the viewpoint it represents."
“This is a sad day for African-Americans and others victimized by hate groups in this state,” Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, told the Dallas Morning News.
A lower Texas court had previously ruled against the SCV after the group sued following the DMV's rejection. In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks decided that the state did not have to issue license plates it deemed offensive.
While Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has not yet commented on Monday's ruling, hespoke out against the plates in 2011.
"We don't need to be scraping old wounds," he said.
As the Morning News notes, nine other states currently allow the plates, including Virginia and North Carolina.

California Goes More PC Than Ever

Bill that would ban California from selling items featuring the Confederate flag clears the Legislature
Lawmaker says bill seeking to ban California sales of Confederate flag helps fend off 'ugly hatred of racism'
Only one California Assemblyman, Tim Donnelly, votes against bill seeking to ban Confederate flag displays
A bill that would prohibit California from displaying or selling merchandise with the Confederate flag is headed to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, after getting final legislative approval in the Assembly on Thursday. 
The measure by Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) would prohibit the state from displaying or selling merchandise emblazoned with the Confederate flag. The ban would not apply to images of the flag found in books, digitial media or state museums if displayed for educational or historical purposes.

Hall introduced the bill, AB 2444, after his mother, on a visit to the Capitol, saw a replica of Confederate money sold in the gift shop. The money contained a picture of the flag.
The bill passed the Assembly on a bipartisan 66-1 vote, a symbol, Hall said, of "standing together united to fend off the ugly hatred of racism that's been portrayed and demonstrated through the emblem of the Confederacy."
The sole no vote in the Assembly was from former GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, who said the bill would infringe on free speech.
"I'm a strict Constitutionalist," Donnelly said after the vote. "It's painful and lonely."
But Hall said the bill would apply to the state, not individuals, and therefore would not harm free speech.
"The 1st Amendment right applies to an individual, not the government as an institution," he said.
Follow @melmason on Twitter for more on California government and politics.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Next Stage of Work on Hunley Begins

Conservators Begin New Work on H.L. Hunley
Tuesday, August 12, 2014

(Courtesy Friends of the Hunley)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—The Post and Courier reports that conservators have begun to scrape away the layer of sand and shell encasing the hull of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which went down in Charleston Harbor in 1864 just minutes after it sank the Union warship USS Housatonic. The layer, known as concretion, has obscured many of the specific features of the vessel that scientists are interested in studying, especially evidence of bullet holes or other damage that might reveal clues about why the submarine sank. "We have been waiting for this a long time," says Nestor Gonzalez, associate director Warren Lasch Conservation Center, which is responsible for the project. "We will know if there was any damage to the submarine pre-sinking or post-sinking." The painstaking work, carried out using dental chisels and small hammers to remove concretion that is in some places a couple of inches thick, could take up to a year to complete.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Legislation would provide headstones for veterans' unmarked graves

The markers of local Civil War veterans can been seen in Cleveland's Woodland Cemetery, but many veterans' graves from that era lack a headstone. Legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate could make it easier to obtain markers for those final resting places. (Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer)
Brian Albrecht, The Plain DealerBy Brian Albrecht, The Plain Dealer 
Email the author | Follow on Twitter 
on August 08, 2014 at 5:18 PM, updated August 08, 2014 at 7:15 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio – The recent introduction of a bipartisan bill by U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jon Tester (D-Montana) to provide headstones for historic unmarked veterans graves came as welcome news to state and local historians.
The "Honor Those Who Served Act of 2014" would enable veterans service agencies, military researchers, historians or genealogists to request a free headstone or marker from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a veteran's grave.
Until 2012 the VA provided headstones for unmarked veterans' graves based on documentation of that vet's identity and service provided by these groups or individuals.
That policy was then changed, limiting headstone requests to a veteran's next-of-kin or authorized family representative – a difficult requirement when dealing with graves dating back 100 years or more, and unknown family descendants. (The policy does not apply to replacement of worn, illegible or damaged markers.)
The Portman-Tester bill matches a similar measure introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year by Rep. Steve Stivers, a Columbus Republican.
Portman said in a news release, "This bipartisan legislation is a common-sense way to honor the men and women who have worn the uniform throughout our nation's history with the official recognition they have earned and deserve."
Todd Kleismit, director of community and government relations at the Ohio History Connection, also commented in the release, "Prior to the VA's policy change, organizations like ours had been working diligently to research and recognize military veterans buried in unmarked graves.
"We hope that this legislation can help us get back to that important work that has been postponed now for the past couple of years," he added.
Last year the VA said the policy is intended to discourage someone from marking a veteran's grave in a way that the descendants may not want or even know about. A spokesperson added that the VA was reviewing that policy.
But Bill Stark, a volunteer archivist with the Cleveland Grays and member of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation who has documented and obtained nearly 200 headstones for veterans' graves in area cemeteries, said the next-of-kin requirement still stands. "The VA hasn't moved on this at all," he said.
There are dozens of unmarked veterans graves in the area that he could request headstones for, but "I haven't tried because I know it (the request) would be rejected," he said.
Stark noted that in a section of Cleveland's Woodland Cemetery containing the graves of black Civil War veterans, there are a number of unmarked graves.
"There's nothing we can do about it unless a descendant wants to sign a form, but we don't know who they are, if there are any at all," he added.
He was encouraged by introduction of the Portman-Tester bill. "It's an excellent sign. I'm glad now because it's covered in the Senate," Stark said. "Both of these legislators seem to be very interested in getting this done. At this point, I'm optimistic."
However, being a self-described "pessimist by nature," Stark added, "If we're still talking about this next year, it wouldn't surprise me."
He told a story illustrating how seriously this matter can still be viewed by some veterans' families.
He was contacted last year by a man in South Dakota whose great-great grandfatrher had fought in the Civil War, then came to Cleveland where he died and was buried in theMonroe Street Cemetery.
Stark said the man was a serious genealogist – "as tenacious as a pit bull" -- and was able to provide the VA with documentation showing his family relationship, and obtain a VA headstone for the grave.
He drove to Cleveland to see the grave marker installed. Stark said the man stood there, then addressed his distant relative by his first name, saying, "John, you couldn't hide from me."
It's that important.
"Oh, definitely," Stark said.