Sons of Confederate Veterans to challenge law banning logo from license plates

Thursday, May 13, 1999

Collin Pulley, ...
Collin Pulley, past commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, display's Maryland's version of a plate honoring his organization before a Jan. 21 hearing of the state House Transportation committee in Richmond, Va.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans says it will file a lawsuit challenging a Virginia law that prohibits the group's logo from appearing on specialized license plates.

The Virginia General Assembly, which decides whether to approve group requests for specialized license plates, earlier this year approved the license plate request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. However, as a compromise measure, the Assembly amended the measure to state that “no logo or emblem of any description shall be displayed or incorporated into the design” of the SCV license plate.

Many legislators believe that the logo, which depicts the Rebel battle flag, is viewed by many people as a symbol of racism.

Signed by the governor in April, the law does not take effect until July 1. The group says it will file a lawsuit in federal court at that time.

The SCV says the denial of their logo request, which is a registered trademark, violates their First Amendment free-speech rights. “This is a clear violation of the First Amendment,” says Patrick J. Griffin III, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“Our plan is to challenge this law in court,” Griffin said. “It's a shame that it has to come to this. It is an indication of how gutless some of our politicians are in this day and age.”

The SCV has enlisted the aid of the Rutherford Institute to file the lawsuit. Ron Rissler, legal coordinator for the Rutherford Institute, says that the Legislature has singled out the SCV because some find it offensive.

“The Sons of Confederate Veterans is the only organization we have found in which the Assembly prohibited [its] logo because it was offensive,” Rissler said. “This is nothing less than viewpoint discrimination. The First Amendment was designed to protect offensive speech; that is what the First Amendment is all about.”

Rissler cites the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson, in which Justice William Brennan wrote for the majority: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

Rissler and Griffin also point to a 1997 decision by a federal court in Maryland that ruled unconstitutional the state motor vehicle administration's decision to recall the specialty license plates issued to the Sons of Confederate Veterans after receiving numerous complaints about them.

In Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Glendening, the court found that the defendants' actions in revoking the license plates were “unconstitutionally viewpoint based.”

“The First Amendment does not countenance such viewpoint discrimination, even for the purpose of suppressing speech that may be perceived as racially degrading or hostile,” the court wrote.

Rissler and Griffin argue that the Maryland case shows that the Virginia law should also be struck down on free-speech grounds. “They are going to have a problem upholding this law in light of the decision in Maryland,” Rissler said.