North Carolina doesn’t have a Confederate battle flag flying over its state capitol, but it does have a specialty license plate featuring that flag, issued by the state on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
It’s just one of many vanity plates offered by the Department of Motor Vehicles “allowing citizens with common interests to promote themselves and/or their causes.”
Virginia has a similar plate, and today — with a nod to the horrific shootings of nine black churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. and the ensuing actions of South Carolina’s Gov. Nikki Haley in ordering the removal of the Confederate flag from the state’s Capitol grounds — the governor of Virginia ordered that flag removed from state license plates.
“Although the battle flag is not flown here on Capitol Square, it has been the subject of considerable controversy, and it divides many of our people,” Governor Terry McAuliffe said. “Even its display on state-issued license tags is, in my view, unnecessarily divisive and hurtful to too many of our people.”
McAuliffe now joins a growing group of state officials recognizing the divisiveness of the Confederate flag, even if offered as an historical symbol to state residents choosing to display it.
He can’t stop private citizens from waving that flag, but he sure can stop the state from letting it appear on a state license plate.
That’s all the more important now, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, holding that specialty license plates are government speech.
(Notably, in that case, Texas refused to allow the Confederate Veterans plate, finding it too offensive.)
“As a general matter,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “when the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy or to take a position.”
What that means here, of course, is that the Confederate flag on a North Carolina license plate is no longer the message of a private group.
It’s now the message of the state of North Carolina.
Update: Several media outlets are now reporting that the governor will act to stop the issuance of state license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag emblem. “The time is right to change this policy due to the recent Supreme Court ruling and the tragedy in Charleston,” Josh Ellis, spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory, said in an email to WRAL.