Suffolk lawyer fights for flag on license plates

Published 9:44 am Wednesday, July 15, 2015

By Tracy Agnew
Special to The Tidewater News

Suffolk attorney Fred Taylor has been hired to help the Sons of Confederate Veterans fight a state attempt to have specialty license plates featuring the group’s logo removed from vehicles in the state.

Part of the group’s logo is the Confederate battle flag, which has come under fire in the wake of a June 17 shooting in Charleston, S.C.

The white man who has been charged with killing nine black people in the allegedly racially motivated shooting has been pictured holding the Confederate flag.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe joined a wave of momentum against the display of the flag the week after the shooting, when he announced he had asked the attorney general’s office to take steps to reverse the prior court ruling requiring the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ logo on the plates, which are issued to members of the organization who request them.

In 1999, the Virginia General Assembly voted to approve the tag, but only with the group’s logo removed. A 2001 U.S. District Court decision and a 2002 U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision required the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to allow the emblem.

But the day after last month’s shooting, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans could be denied tags with their logo, following which McAuliffe announced his decision.

Taylor, who lives in Franklin, said the governor alone does not have the authority to demand license plates off of the street, and that the decision in the Texas case doesn’t fit Virginia’s situation.

“I don’t think the Texas case applies,” Taylor said last Thursday. “The biggest issue is that Texas really takes a hands-on approach to how they issue their license plates. They have a process that very much involves the government and officers and officials within the government.

“Virginia is a lot different,” he continued. “You basically say you want a license plate, and the organization that requests it, they do all the grunt work. They put everything together. In my opinion, it takes the government involvement out of that, while in Texas, the government’s involved in it the whole time, and I believe that’s why the Supreme Court says it creates government speech.”

Taylor said a look at other examples of organizations that have specialty plates makes it obvious the plates aren’t government speech.

“Nobody is going to say the commonwealth of Virginia is somehow endorsing a sports team, or a college over another college,” Taylor said.

In a court document filed by Taylor for the case, he addresses the connection between the flag and the Charleston shooting.

“As stunning to all as this event was … it was not caused by the Confederate battle flag, and a ban on the display of the flag would not have prevented it,” the document states.

A hearing on the case is set for July 31 at 11 a.m. at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Danville.