Confederate flag still contentious, as states weigh emblem on license plates

Several Southern states are reconsidering the option of featuring the Confederate battle flag on license plates.

Texas Department of Motor Vehicles/Reuters
The design of a proposed 'Sons of the Confederacy' Texas state license plate is shown in this handout illustration provided by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles March 20. Several Southern states are reconsidering the option of including the Confederate emblem on license plates.

Three Southern states – Maryland, Virginia, and Texas – have moved to ban the sale of “specialty” license plates emblazoned with the Confederate flag, as the South as a whole continues to grapple both with its controversial past identities and possibility for the future.

The bans follow a June US Supreme Court ruling that Confederate-flag plates are a form of government speech, and as a result can be rejected by states that choose to do so.

In that 5-to-4 decision, which focused on whether or not Texas had a right to refuse to issue such specialty plates, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority that “The fact that private parties take part in the design and propagation of a message does not extinguish the governmental nature of the message or transform the government’s role into that of a mere forum-provider.”

Maryland attempted to recall license plates that featured small images of the flag beginning in the 1990s, but at the time a federal judge ruled that those plates were protected by the First Amendment. On Thursday, District Judge Marvin J. Garbis issued an order permitting Attorney General Brian Fosh to lift that ruling, with the order going into full effect mid-November.

Virginia is also following suit by requiring owners of Confederate-flag plates to obtain new ones without that symbol, but it has received considerable pushback from owners of those plates who say that the Confederate flag is a symbol of their heritage, not racism.

"I have a great-great-great grandfather who fought and died with the 5th Georgia Infantry. And his four brothers all died with him in the name of that flag," Kevin Collier, a man from Suffolk, Virginia, told local Virginia news outlet 13NewsNow. Mr. Collier is refusing to turn in his plates.

In September, the Virginia DMV sent out 1600 new plates, asking owners of Confederate-flag plates to turn in their old license plates within 30 days. However, only 163 people have complied. According to the Virginia DMV, it is a Class 2 misdemeanor to drive with inactive plates.

Georgia, on the other hand, has recently begun selling license plates that bear the Confederate flag logo again. The state issued a temporary halt on sales after the June attack on a black church in Charleston, S.C., in which nine churchgoers were killed.

Georgia's newly redesigned plates feature a smaller image of the Confederate flag, and the flag is no longer used as a background image on the plates.

“The changes reflect an agreement [we] reached with the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which sponsors the specialty plate,” William Gaston, a spokesman for Georgia's Department of Revenue, told Reuters.

"We were just as mortified as anyone over the events in South Carolina but that doesn't have anything to do with the Confederate flag," Ray McBerry, spokesman for the state's Sons of Confederate Veterans group, added.

After the shootings, the Confederate flag was removed from statehouse grounds in South Carolina, where it had flown for almost fifty years. According to a Winthrop Poll released Wednesday, a little over half of white South Carolina residents supported the removal of the flag, while 93 percent of blacks believed that it was the right thing to do.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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