Court Okays Use of Confederate Symbol On Virginia License Plates

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - A federal court in Virginia has ruled that a group known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans has the right to join other interest groups in issuing specialty license plates bearing the Confederate flag logo. But another group is urging the Virginia state government to appeal the decision.

In its unanimous verdict, issued Monday, a three-judge panel from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said efforts to restrict the use of the logo are "an instance of viewpoint discrimination."

The Rutherford Institute, a non-profit civil liberties group, defended the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) in court. "This is a victory not just for the thousands of members of the SCV but for everyone who has used their license plates as a means of personal expression," John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, said.

In 1999, the Virginia General Assembly approved a specialty license plate for the group but censored the use of the Confederate flag.

Whitehead told a lower court ruled in favor of the SCV and its right to display the Confederate flag on its privatized license plates in the state of Virginia. But the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (VDMV) appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The court of appeals has issued a ringing affirmation of the free speech principles that license plates are personal expression and that government officials cannot censor that expression just because it's unpopular," Whitehead said.

Edwin Deason, national commander in chief of the SCV, said it was reassuring to see that the group was being afforded its constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Deason said many states have been involved in similar lawsuits. Residents in the states of Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama currently have the right to display the SCV logo, including the Confederate battle flag on license plates.

Efforts are also underway in Tennessee and West Virginia to approve the use of similar privatized license plate, Deason said.

Whitehead said more than a thousand people were on the waiting list to obtain SCV license plates in Virginia. "What [the decision] says is that free speech is still alive. The court here has confirmed that you cannot discriminate upon the basis of what someone has to say once the government has opened a forum."

Deason also denied that the reason for including the battle flag on the license plate had anything to do with racism. "First of all, it is the Saint Andrew's cross that makes up a big portion of our logo, and around that is 'Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.' So, there is nothing racist about it whatsoever. The Saint Andrew's cross, I always thought, was a good thing," he said.

Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), disagreed. "It is offensive to a significant number of the populous because of what it stands for; particular to people of African descent is terrorism, intimidation, harassment and even murder when it is used by those kinds of hate groups," Khalfani said.

He added that the Virginia NAACP is urging the attorney general and governor to continue the appeal process. "We have taken a position against the symbol being on the license plate, and the state needs to be able to control what goes on its license plates. It needs to get out of the business of issuing [private plates]," Khalfani said.

"No other group has suffered like those of African descendants here. Over 100 million lives were lost in our enslavement, so any group that was supporting slavery and wants to continue to parade that in our face, we are going to be opposed to when it comes into the public sector," Khalfani said.

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