Kyle Johnson
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The One Fact That Matters in Confederate Plate-Gate

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Texas Plate

Right around this time last year, I wrote a piece about the State of Georgia being the next in line to offer Confederate Flag specialty plates for motor vehicles. The result of the blog: a bunch of revisionist historians came out of the woodwork with email addresses like DIXIEDEFENDER101@geemail.corn to tell me that it’s not about what the flag actually means, man, but it’s about what the flag actually means. Many good laughs were had.

I bring this up today because the Supreme Court is now hearing arguments regarding whether a Texas motor vehicle board violated the First Amendment rights of the state’s chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans when it denied the group’s request for a specialty license plate prominently featuring the Confederate Flag.

Of course, the issue here is not whether the Confederate Flag is a historical symbol of racism and intolerance (it is!), it’s whether this qualifies as a First Amendment case. Let’s explore a bit.

Contrary to what every Internet lawyer will tell you, the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits Congress from—among other things—abridging the freedom of speech or press. If, say, you are the racist/sexist/homophobic patriarch of a television family who can’t keep the flap in his bearded face shut, you are not having your First Amendment rights violated when a television network takes away your show for a while. Because nobody is constitutionally guaranteed a TV show.

Texas’ argument here is that the license plates are government property, and so they believe that whatever appears on their plates is not something that is subject to private speech and the laws thereof. It is also made clear that the decision to deny the SOCV was not a matter of discrimination or an abridgment of free speech, but you can virtually guarantee that the DMV chose not to accept the plates because it would become a controversial issue. Guess what: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

It’s a complex issue, and it’s a decision that could truly go either way. It will boil down to whether the Supreme Court views state-issued and -required identification plates as a forum for private speech, and, if so, that right to free speech was suppressed in this instance.

There has been one other instance of the Supreme Court considering whether the First Amendment applies to license plates: 1977’s Wooley v. Maynard, which ruled that the state of New Hampshire couldn’t require state license plates to display the state motto, “Live Free or Die.” That case, however, was concerned with the mandatory state-issued plate; Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans concerns a plate that is optional and only available at extra cost.

If I’m guessing, I suspect that the court will side with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Why? “In God We Trust.”

There have been numerous cases that have challenged the use of the motto “In God We Trust” on national currency over the last sixty years. All have either been defeated in the Supreme Court or summarily dismissed, all on the understanding that the use of the word “God” on coinage and paper money 1) does not connect to the establishment of a national religion, 2) is not coercive, and 3) does not present a substantial burden to non-believers.

Conveniently enough, Indiana, Florida, and South Carolina all manufacture specialty plates that feature the words “In God We Trust” and are available at no additional cost to drivers. Were that particular plate to come into question in a case like this, it would likely not be subject to any different ruling for those same reasons. Were the Supreme Court to rule differently on the use of “In God We Trust” on state-issued license plates than it has on federally-issued currency, it would open up an enormous can of worms.

Of course, I could be wrong. I am no lawyer, just a humble writer of blogs. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised (or disappointed) if I was wrong in my assumption here.

The result of Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans could create a slippery slope in its wake if it is determined that the plate is protected by the First Amendment—what’s to stop the Ku Klux Klan from applying for and being granted its own state-issued specialty plate? Or a neo-Nazi organization? Or any hate group for that matter?—and will likely have far-reaching implications that will unspool in the years to follow. It’s sure to be a divisive, controversial issue that will be subject to great debate up to and after the ruling.

The one thing that is not up for debate—the one true fact in the case of whether Confederate Flags should or shouldn’t be allowed on state license plates: if you proudly fly a Confederate Flag in the year 2015, you are peddling a racist symbol and, ergo, propagating racism. 

The Confederate Flag does not represent PRIDE or TRADITION or HONOR, regardless of how loudly you shout it and how defiantly you display it. It is a flag that flew primarily in the name of sustaining the industry of slavery, and standing by it suggests any of number of things: that you endorse those principles, or that you are willfully ignorant to them, or that you are simply clinging to an effigy of our country’s horrible history and bringing it into the 21st century kicking and screaming because you can. 

That’s the beauty of America: you are free to be ignorant, intolerant, idiotic, and incorrect to your heart’s content. You can speak your mind and wear your colors with all the conviction of a cannon ball and you will not be subject to discrimination from your government (unless you are a woman, a minority, or gay, because ‘MURICA). And regardless of your biases and your prejudices and your ugliness, you have those rights even when you are absolutely and unequivocally wrong.

Kyle S. Johnson lives in Cincinnati, a city known by many as “the Cincinnati of Southwest Ohio.” He enjoys professional wrestling, Halloween, and also other things. He has been writing for a while, and he plans to continue to write well into the future. See more articles by Kyle.