- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

A Confederate heritage group will be in federal court in Roanoke today to demand that Virginia let it put its logo, which includes the Confederate battle flag, on specialty license plates.
In the 1999 General Assembly session, lawmakers approved a special license plate for members of Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), but wrote into the law language that prohibits them from displaying their logo specifically to prevent the battle flag from appearing on a state license plate.
"It's pretty clear that this was bowing down to the gods of political correctness when they passed this statute," said Arthur P. Strickland, a Roanoke lawyer representing the SCV. Mr. Strickland is working with the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based organization that handles First Amendment cases.
Today's hearing will be held before U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser, the same judge who oversaw integrating women into the Virginia Military Institute.
He was also the first judge to hear and dismiss the federal case of Christy Brzonkala, who argued that two Virginia Tech football players raped her, violating the federal Violence Against Women Act. The U.S. Supreme Court this year upheld Judge Kiser's decision that the federal act was unconstitutional.
The question for the federal court is whether license plates are a public forum subject to First Amendment protection, as Mr. Strickland says, or whether they are the equivalent of state speech, and subject to the state's discretion, as Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley argues.
"By excluding display of the battle flag from its license plates, the commonwealth avoids the appearance of favoritism in the debate between those who view the flag as 'a symbolic acknowledgment of pride in Southern heritage and independence,' and those who view it negatively," Mr. Earley argued in court papers.
But Mr. Strickland argues the case isn't so different from a recent one in Missouri, where the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state can't exclude the Ku Klux Klan from its adopt-a-highway program, and it must put the KKK's name on the state sign that credits by name the groups responsible for keeping their adopted parts of the highway clean.
Missouri has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and this summer, Mr. Earley led a group of states in filing a brief supporting Missouri's position.
Virginia's license-plate program is different from states like Maryland, where the SCV has won the right to have its logo on specialty plates.
In Maryland, the law says any organization that meets the requirements will be issued a plate by the Department of Motor Vehicles with no discretion.
But in Virginia, the General Assembly has kept the power to issue plates to itself so every time a group wants a new plate design, it must ask a lawmaker to introduce a bill, have it passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.
The SCV did just that in 1998, and the bill was approved by the legislature in 1999. But the bill was amended to specifically prohibit the SCV logo, against the SCV's wishes, after black lawmakers gave speeches on the House and Senate floors recalling the flag from their childhood and its association with segregation.
As of the end of October, about 20 percent of Virginia license plates, or 1.3 million, were specialty plates.
More than 180 special designs have been approved, including ones with logos for the National Rifle Association, the Freemasons and the AFL-CIO.
Another 111 designs have been approved, but are waiting for enough applicants the law calls for 350 to make issuing the plates cost-effective.
Mr. Strickland said several thousand SCV members in Virginia have signed affidavits saying they would buy a plate with the logo if it were available.
Since there is no pressing deadline, Judge Kiser is expected to take the issue under advisement and issue a written opinion.
One possibility is that he will wait for the Supreme Court to decide the Missouri KKK case before ruling.

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