Thursday, March 26, 2015

License plate as soapbox? --- March 26, 2015 column

A civil rights activist in South Carolina had the most practical reaction I’ve seen about the controversy over Sons of Confederate Veterans’ specialty license plates.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of the Charleston NAACP, said he is not opposed to plates with a Confederate battle flag because they identify people of whom he should be wary, reported Diane Knich of The Post and Courier newspaper.
“I don’t turn my back on that person because you never know,” Darby said.
South Carolina is one of nine states that produce Sons of Confederate Veterans’ license plates featuring the battle flag. Others are Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, a case involving Texas’ denial of the Sons’ specialty plate on grounds it “might be offensive to any member of the public.”
The Sons say the flag celebrates Southern heritage, but for many African Americans it is a potent symbol of oppression and racism. If someone chooses to exercise his right to free speech by paying extra for a license plate he knows others find offensive,  he is, as Darby suggests, giving the rest of us fair warning. You never know.
We’ve always judged motorists by their bumper strips and decals. Now state governments have discovered a dandy fund-raising machine that offers our vehicle as a means of self-expression. For a fee, each motorist can have a unique soapbox, the 6-inch by 12-inch rectangle of aluminum on our bumpers. 
Texas offers more than 400 specialty plates, touting enthusiasms, groups and causes, any number of which might be offensive to someone. But it has denied only a couple of applications.
The Lone Star State embraces its Confederate heritage with Confederate Heroes Day, an official state holiday on Jan. 19. Three permanent monuments to Confederate soldiers are on the state Capitol grounds. The Capitol gift shop sells Confederate battle flag posters, fake Confederate money and miniature Confederate flags. A nearby state office building is named for the postmaster general of the Confederate States of America.
But when the Sons applied for a plate with its logo, the Confederate battle flag surrounded by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896,” with a faint Confederate flag in the background, thousands of complaints poured into the board of motor vehicles, which rejected the request.
At issue for the Supreme Court is whether specialty plates are private speech protected by the First Amendment or government speech and subject to censorship. Texas argues that the government makes and owns the plates and has the right to restrict what they say. The Sons say the plates are private, protected speech.
More than speech issues are involved, though. License plates are big business. Texas raked in $17.6 million last year from specialty plates.
“They’re only doing this to get the money,” Chief Justice John Roberts said during oral arguments.
States typically pass some of the fee back to the nonprofit organizations. For example, Choose Life America raised more than $21 million from August 2000 through last October from specialty plate sales in 29 states and the District of Columbia, according to court documents.
The court has delayed consideration of a separate case from North Carolina, Berger v. American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. The state legislature approved the anti-abortion “Choose Life” specialty plate but then denied a request for one with the abortion-rights message, “Respect Choice.”
Texas argues that if it grants the Sons a specialty plate, it will have to allow plates from even the most offensive groups, such as al-Qaida. Roberts had an alternative solution.
“If you don’t want to have the al-Qaida license plate, don’t get into the business of allowing people to buy…the space to put on whatever they want to say,” the chief justice said.
The court is expected to rule in June. One solution, as Roberts suggests, is for states to stop selling license plates as a soapbox. That’s sensible, but states would hate to lose the easy revenue.
Most motorists, though, would be happy not to have to look at offensive license plates.
© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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