Confederate group fights for state specialty plates
Greg Latshaw, USA TODAY
As the nation observes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a Confederate heritage group is fighting for the right to place the Confederate flag on license plates in three new states — Florida, Kentucky and Texas.
Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), based in Columbia, Tenn., already offers the Confederate-inspired tags in nine southern states: Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, says Ben Sewell, the group's executive director.
"The plates promote a positive image of the Confederate States of America. The Confederate soldier, he takes a beating nowadays. We're trying to divest ourselves of the negative associations," says Jay Barringer, the commander of the SCV Maryland Division.
Critics, including the NAACP, contend that the Confederate emblem is a hurtful symbol and doesn't belong on state-issued license plates.
SCV members have gone to court, winning each time a state has tried to deny, recall or censor imagery on their Confederate plates, Sewell says. Revenues from plate sales have been used to restore historic artifacts, members from state SCV divisions say.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said he will not denounce a proposal for a state-issued license plate to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Federal courts have differed on how far the First Amendment goes in protecting an individual's vanity plates and a group's specialty plates, says David Hudson Jr., an attorney and First Amendment scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville.
Hudson says courts have heard cases on everything from vanity plates that abbreviate swear words or spell out "Aryan-1" to several cases in which anti-abortion and abortion rights groups have clashed over "Choose Life" specialty license plates.
A crucial question with specialty plates is whether the plate is a form of private speech or government speech. The distinction determines if traditional First Amendment principles apply, he says.
"To me, this issue is not going away. It's a perennial First Amendment issue," Hudson says, adding that he could see the Supreme Court eventually weighing in on the subject.
On March 30, a federal judge ruled that Florida's specialty license plates program — under which the state Legislature approves the plates — is unconstitutional because it gives "unfettered discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination." The state SCV sued the state after the Legislature didn't approve their Confederate Heritage plate, says John Adams, of the SCV Florida Division.
David Westberry, spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, says the ruling didn't order the state to issue the plates and that it's up to the Legislature to decide whether it will rework the statute.
Adams says the SCV will use the ruling to insist that a lawmaker sponsor a bill backing their plate and, if that fails, may take the issue back to court.
•The Texas SCV had its Confederate plate design denied by the Department of Motor Vehicles Board on April 14, says Ray James, commander of the division. James says his group, for the time being, plans to bring their design back up to the DMV board because the last vote occurred without the ninth boardmember present.
"We exist to honor veterans. But we're not seen as honoring veterans. We're seen as waving the battle flag in front of the African-American population out of orneriness, race and hate," James says.
•The Kentucky SCV is considering a suit against the state by this summer because of what it sees as a double standard in the state's specialty plate program, says spokesman Don Shelton. He says his group wants to put up money for the plate in advance and get people to agree to buy it later — as he says the sponsor behind a Lincoln Bicentennial license plate did in 2007 — but has been told that method isn't valid anymore.
•The Mississippi SCV, which wants to release a five-part series of specialty license plates through 2015 to honor the Civil War sesquicentennial, has upset the NAACP with their choice for 2014. The state division suggests a plate for Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest — controversial because Forrest was the Ku Klux Klan's first Grand Wizard and was involved in the 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. A Facebook group against the proposal, called "Mississippians Against The Commemoration Of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest," has more than 2,400 likes.