- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

RICHMOND A federal judge in Roanoke yesterday ruled that Virginia cannot refuse to issue a license plate with the Confederate battle flag on it to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
At a time when the flag and those who display it are under attack, Judge Jackson L. Kiser said if the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) wants the flag on its plate it can have the flag, which is part of the group's emblem.
Two years ago the SCV, a nationwide heritage group with 3,100 Virginia members, asked the General Assembly for a license plate with its emblem on it. Legislators were willing to approve the plate, but they ceded to black lawmakers' wishes and refused to let the flag appear on it.
The group sued and, after two years of legal tussling, the judge ruled that rejecting the design was viewpoint discrimination.
"The motivation behind the commonwealth's ban of logos or emblems was to avoid controversy by preventing plaintiffs from designing a plate that displays the Confederate battle flag. Out of hundreds of specialty plates in existence, only that bearing the Sons' logo is targeted," Judge Kiser wrote in an 18-page decision.
Judge Kiser's decision may not be the final word. A spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley, who defended the state in the case, said the attorney general was reviewing the decision. The state has 30 days to decide whether to file an appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
But Art Strickland, the lawyer who represented the SCV in the case, said the judge's decision is fairly clear.
"The statute that the legislature had passed in a fit of political correctness said, 'Well, we'll let you have your license plate, but you can't put your logo on it.' That was obviously from our standpoint, and we persuaded the judge viewpoint discrimination," Mr. Strickland said.
The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had also opposed the license plate. Salim Khalfani, the NAACP's executive director, didn't return calls for comment yesterday.
Henry Kidd, commander of the Virginia division of the SCV, said he hopes drivers won't associate the new SCV plates with hate groups.
"When we do eventually get our license plates and they see them on the highway, they realize that the person driving that car is someone who is very proud of their family, and that family history," Mr. Kidd said.
Mr. Kidd said several of his ancestors fought for the Confederacy, including Cpl. Richard Thomas Fitzgerald, who joined the 13th North Carolina at age 15 with two brothers. Both of Cpl. Fitzgerald's brothers died in the war.
The Virginia case is the latest in which a judge has ruled the SCV is entitled to its logo on a plate.
In Maryland, where obtaining a plate involves simply meeting certain administrative requirements and filing a request with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the SCV sued after its plate was revoked in 1997. A judge ruled in the group's favor.
It takes an act of the assembly to approve a plate design in Virginia, and then the DMV must receive 350 applications for the plate before producing it. Judge Kiser's ruling is bound to call that process into question, at a time when the legislature is flooded with new requests for specialty plates.
The implication of Judge Kiser's ruling, according to the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is that the state can't reject any plate requests.
"For all intents and purposes, this means that legislators are compelled to vote in favor of any specialty-plate bill that is introduced," said Kent Willis, the ACLU's executive director.
The plate most likely to provoke a dispute will be that for supporters of the Million Mom March gun-control rally, requested by Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat.
Yesterday, the House Transportation Committee approved a host of new plate designs, including ones for NASCAR fans and one that reads "Education begins at home."
Judge Kiser rejected the government's argument that specialty plates are government speech. The state's basic plate design and other designs that use the state logo are government speech, he said, but plates requested by groups and causes are private speech. They were compared by some to a bumper sticker.
Hundreds of specialty plates have been approved in recent years, ranging from those for the AFL-CIO to college alumni groups. But a sizable number of the plates have yet to meet the 350-application requirement for producing them.


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