August 10, 2006

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Sons of Confederate Veterans, upset that one of its billboards was taken down because the landowner deemed it controversial, announced Tuesday it would start a campaign to let people know the sign had been removed.

The billboard has checkered and Confederate flags and reads: "Victory is Great, but Honor is Greater. Defend your Southern heritage." The group says the sign was put up near Darlington Raceway in response to a NASCAR executive’s comments about the Confederate flag.

Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman Don Gordon said a similar billboard went up during the weekend on Interstate 95 near Florence, and the group has purchased one-minute radio ads statewide, as well as a one-hour radio show scheduled to air Monday. He didn’t identify on what stations the ads would air.

At a press conference on the Statehouse steps, just yards from the state’s Confederate war memorial and flag, the commander of the group’s South Carolina division, Randy Burbage, said the new billboard is one of several recent outreach efforts.

"We believe that the First Amendment rights of our historical honor society have been violated," Mr. Burbage said.

The landowner who wanted the sign removed, South Carolina Central Railroad, said it was not in its "commercial interests to have billboards on our property displaying messages that might be controversial in the local community, whatever the substance of the messages."

The original billboard was put up in response to a comment made in October by NASCAR Chief Executive Officer Brian France, who said in an interview that the Confederate flag was "not a flag that I look at with anything favorable. That’s for sure."

A message left at NASCAR’s office of corporate communication was not returned.

Mr. Burbage said the group had not filed a lawsuit against the railroad but did not rule out action.

A deal is also in the works for the group to get its message on televisions across the state, particularly on cable stations, Mr. Gordon said. The group also plans a speaker program across the state "to take our case directly to the people who have fought and sacrificed so much for our First Amendment rights, freedom of speech," Mr. Burbage said.

A media law professor at the University of South Carolina said the billboard’s removal is not necessarily a First Amendment issue.

"It is not a government-owned billboard," said professor Erik Collins.

Taking down the billboard might be inhibiting the group’s free-speech ability, Mr. Collins said, "but that’s the price you pay in a democracy."

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