Accessibility links

Breaking News

Recent Supreme Court Ruling Adds to Confederate Flag Debate


FILE - Confederate flag-themed stickers are displayed at Arkansas Flag and Banner in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, June 23, 2015.

In the aftermath of a recent deadly shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina, calls have increased for South Carolina and other U.S. states to remove Confederate flags from government grounds.

Those who want the flag to be removed say it is a symbol of slavery and connotes racism.

The South Carolina Legislature is expected to soon begin debate on whether to remove the flag from a memorial on the Statehouse grounds that honors soldiers who fought for the pro-slavery Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Almost by sheer coincidence, one day after the racially charged massacre in South Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling on the issue.

Recent case

In Walker vs. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc., the high court ruled messages displayed on specialty license plates for automobiles are a form of government speech, not individual speech protected by the Constitution, therefore the state of Texas, not private citizens, gets to decide what to put on state-issued license plates.

The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an association of male descendants of ex-Confederate soldiers and sailors founded almost 120 years ago, sought to have the specialty license plate issued in the state of Texas five years ago.

The state of Texas rejected the request, and the group took the case to the Supreme Court, claiming that denying a specialty plate was a violation of the First Amendment.

Jonathan Mitchell, the former Texas Solicitor General who argued the case on behalf of the state of Texas, said while organizations such as Sons of Confederate Veterans seek to protect their freedom of speech, their request infringed on state government rights.

“They (Sons of Confederate Veterans) have the right to put the Confederate battle flag on a bumper sticker; they can paint their car to look like a Confederate battle flag; they can do whatever they want to the car, the bumper, the windows, but they cannot force the state of Texas to propagate that symbol by putting it on state-issued license plates,” he said.

Mitchell added the high court has essentially given the power to decide on such issues to the states, “because it is a political decision for each state to make and every state will be different in terms of what people think in that state about the Confederate battle flag and how it should be used."

“So it’s a decision for elected officials to make; it’s a decision for people who are accountable for the electorate to make, but it’s not a decision for federal courts to make,” Mitchell said.

'Unpopular speech'

However, R. James George Jr., the attorney who represented the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the case, stressed that it is important as a society to protect the freedom of speech, including what he calls “unpopular speech."

The Confederate flag was the symbol of the Confederate States of America – Southern states that broke away from the United States in 1861.

The Southern states fought a Civil War for independence from the federal government and for the right to preserve slavery.

The Emancipation Proclamation issued in September 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for all slaves in the rebel states of the Confederacy.

The rebel states surrendered in 1865 and slavery was officially abolished in the U.S. in late 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Dylann Roof, 21, the white gunman charged with murdering nine African-Americans inside a Charleston, South Carolina, church earlier this month, was photographed holding the flag.