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Federal appeals court allows Confederate flag license plates

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] on Monday reversed [opinion, PDF] a lower court ruling prohibiting the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles [official website] from issuing specialty license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag. The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) [advocacy website], an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Confederate soldiers, appealed a US District Court for the Western District of Texas [official website] ruling [opinion, PDF] that the Board of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles had not violated the organization's First Amendment [text] rights in its rejection of the plates. The three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit ruled that the specialty plates are "private speech" reflecting the views, not of the government, but of the "individual driving the car." The court also determined the board's rejection of the proposed plate was not a "permissible content-based regulation" but "impermissible viewpoint discrimination." Opponents of the specialty plate expressed concern that the pro-Confederate sentiment displayed on the plate conveyed a "controversial" and "offensive" viewpoint.

The Confederate flag and the controversial messages it conveys have been the focal point of much litigation, often involving the SCV. In July 2012 the SCV indicated [JURIST report] it would appeal a decision of the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia dismissing the SCV's legal challenge to a Lexington, Virginia ordinance banning the display of the Confederate flag on municipal flagpoles. The district court dismissed [JURIST report] the suit on the grounds that the ordinance was reasonable and content-neutral. In August 2008 the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed [JURIST report] a district court's ruling for a Tennessee public high school in a lawsuit brought by three students who claimed the school's ban on wearing the Confederate flag violated their First Amendment, equal protection and due process rights under the US Constitution.

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