DMV board shoots down Confederate license plate

SHAIA MOORE | 2/11/2019, 12:36 p.m.
Wars are battles of words and symbols, not just bullets. While the Civil War spanned from 1861 to 1865, the ...
An image of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ 2018 proposed specialty license plate DMV

The Dallas Examiner

Wars are battles of words and symbols, not just bullets. While the Civil War spanned from 1861 to 1865, the fight over the legacy of the Confederacy and its associated symbols continues.

On Dec. 6, 2018, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board voted in a 5-3 decision to reject the latest attempt by the state arm of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to get a specialty license plate approved.

Unlike the group’s 2011 design, the recently proposed plate did not include the Confederate battle flag. Instead, it depicted an SCV member posed as a 1st Texas Infantry soldier in a grey Confederate uniform holding the Wigfall flag.

At the public DMV hearing for the redesigned plate, the main argument was not about whether the tags displayed Confederate insignia, but whether the design was too similar to an existing specialty license plate for the Texas Bicycle Coalition.

Robin Stallings, the executive director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition Education Fund, objected to the SCV’s plate on grounds that their bicycle group’s “God Bless Texas” plate also displays a waving Texas flag on the left side of the tag, reported the Dallas Morning News.

“The plates are very similar,” Stallings told the board, concerned that controversy would harm sales. “It could cause a lot of confusion.”

Ag Commissioner’s backing

No stranger to controversy, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller came out publicly backing the group’s new design. If approved, the Department of Agriculture would have acted as the sponsoring state agency for the SCV Texas Division’s plate.

In March, Miller wrote a letter of support to the DMV stating that the money from sales – $22 for each plate sold – would go back to the SCV in the form of grants “for supporting charitable causes and related activities.” Miller defended the new plate, saying he “couldn’t see anything offensive about it.”

“I’m not one to rewrite history, and I don’t support taking the Confederate monuments down,” he told The Dallas Morning News.

Supreme Court ruling

The SCV Texas Division has been trying to secure a specialty license plate for over a decade. They originally wanted to display their logo, which featured the organization’s name and a square Confederate battle flag, but that design was rejected by the state in 2011. The group responded by filing suit against the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board, and the case eventually snowballed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.

Writing for the majority opinion in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded that the expression at issue was government speech, not private speech, and that the state maintains direct control over the messages on its plates, which “are, essentially, government IDs.”

When government speaks, it can “promote a program, espouse a policy, or take a position.” But in doing so, “it represents its citizens and it carries out its duties on their behalf.”

The 5-4 decision rejected the SCV’s argument that the license plates provided a forum for private speech, just as they had rejected a similar argument made in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, when a religious organization was trying to erect a monument in a city park.