U.S. top court wrestles over Confederate flag license plate

Mon Mar 23, 2015 1:03pm EDT
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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday appeared conflicted over how to resolve a free speech dispute over whether the state of Texas was required to approve a specialty vehicle license plate that displays a Confederate battle flag.

A major concern for some justices was that if the state has no say over what messages to allow, it would pave the way for other potentially offensive messages such as images of Nazi swastikas or statements promoting the Islamist militant group al Qaeda.

At one point during the one-hour argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recited a list of potentially offensive messages.

James George, the lawyer representing the group Sons of Confederate Veterans, which proposed the flag plate, said Texas would have to approve all of them if his side won.

"So they could have the swastika. And suppose somebody else says I want to have 'Jihad' on my license plate. That's okay, too?" Ginsburg said.

The state could simply halt the program if it does not want to approve messages it disagrees with, Chief Justice John Roberts said.

"If you don't want to have the al Qaeda license plate, don't get into the business of allowing people to buy ... the space to put on whatever they want to say," Roberts said.

Although concerned by the prospect of offensive license plates, the justices raised questions about whether the state had a sound legal reason under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, for how it approved some plates but not others.   Continued...

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, 2015.   REUTERS/Texas Department of Motor Vehicles/Handout via Reuters