Confederate license plate backers seek high court help

By MARISSA BARNETT
Austin Bureau
mbarnett@dallasnews.com
Published: 11 October 2014

AUSTIN — A Southern heritage group wanting to sell Confederate battle flag license plates has asked the U.S. Supreme Court for help in its long fight against a Texas agency opposed to the idea.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, in a legal filing last week, said the justices should reject the state’s recent request that it take up the case after a lower court ruled Texas cannot block the specialty plates.

The veterans group’s lawyer acknowledged that the Civil War-inspired plate “evokes passionate viewpoints,” but said that because of free speech rights, Texas cannot ban the tag simply because some may find it offensive.

The state attorney general’s office told the high court in August that the Department of Motor Vehicles has the power to regulate controversial messages on government-issued property.

The back and forth between plate supporters and the state is the latest development in what has been a five-year dispute. The DMV twice snubbed the group’s request for the plate with the stylized flag.

Critics have denounced it as racially offensive. The veterans group say it’s intended to honor Confederate soldiers.

After the group won an appeals court ruling in July that cleared the way for the plate, the state asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.

The court now is sifting through nearly 10,000 petitions to decide which cases — possibly as many at 90 — that it will hear during the session ending the middle of next year.

The plate, with the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896” encircling the red flag of blue bars and white stars, remains in limbo in Texas until the case is resolved. Nine other states allow it.

John McConnell, the group’s attorney, said that most courts have deemed license plates as private speech, even when issued by state governments. That means the DMV overreached when it refused the flag tag, he said.

“The Constitution does not allow the state to censor unpopular viewpoints because the majority finds them ‘offensive.’ Such a standard allows for unbridled discretion and is a recipe for viewpoint discrimination,” he said.

Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office said the court should hear the case because lower courts have issued conflicting decisions in similar suits across the country.

McConnell said the state-cited cases are not relevant.

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