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Confederate-Flag License Plates Get Supreme Court Scrutiny

The justices have agreed to decide how much control state governments can exert over slogans and messages on vehicle license plates.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving the image of a Confederate flag on a license plate and decide how much control state governments can exert over slogans and messages on vehicle tags. The court will hear an appeal from the state of Texas, which refused five years ago to approve a specialty plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, including a logo of a Confederate battle flag surrounded by group's name and the year 1896.

After hearing public comments, the state motor vehicle authority rejected the request, explaining that "many members of the general public find the design offensive," and associate the flag "with organizations advocating expressions of hate."

The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued and won in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It ruled that license plate messages — other than official mottos such as "Lone Star State" — are free speech and can't be restricted by the state even if some consider the words offensive.

The federal courts are divided on whether the message on a license plate is strictly government speech — in which case the government has more authority over what is said — or a mixture of government and private speech. Court battles have been fought over messages such as "Choose Life" on license plates.

In the Texas case, the appeals court said the legal test is whether a reasonable observer would understand the message to be an expression of government or private speech. Greg Abbott, the Texas Governor-Elect, filed court papers as state attorney general urging the court to rule in favor of the state and against the confederate group.


— Pete Williams