In a dispute over a proposed Confederate battle flag license plate in Texas, the Supreme Court struggled Monday to balance worries about government censorship and concerns that offensive messages could, at worst, incite violence.
Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court last week over whether Texas can refuse to issue license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag to the group Sons of Confederate Veterans should sound familiar.
In the late 1990s, the same group prevailed in a similar lawsuit against Maryland, winning the right to have the Confederate flag — part of its logo — on Maryland plates under the state's program for nonprofit group tags.
Since then, 409 vehicles and 61 motorcycles have been issued the group's Confederate plates in Maryland, and 151 vehicles and 27 motorcycles still bear them today, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration said.
The local lawsuit, which the group won in 1997, was filed after the MVA issued 78 flag-bearing plates to group members and then tried to recall them after black political and religious leaders complained that the flag symbolizes racism.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans successfully argued that the flag is a symbol of their heritage protected by the First Amendment, and that their group should not be treated differently from other groups in the state. Since losing that case, the MVA has allowed any group with nonprofit status and at least 25 members to apply for organizational tags.
At the same time, however, requests to have words or messages placed on Maryland plates under the MVA's separate "vanity plates" program for individuals are routinely rejected as "objectionable."
State law allows the MVA to deny vanity tags that have scatological or sexual meaning; use curse words, epithets or obscenities; carry a "fraudulent or deceptive purpose"; refer to illegal acts; or convey messages about a group's race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability.
In 2012, The Baltimore Sun reported the administration's "Objectionable Plate List" — which new vanity plate requests are screened against — had 4,492 entries, including words that can't be printed in a family newspaper and violent messages such as KILL ALL. It also included ALLAH, though an MTA official at the time said that was due to an "overcautious" employee and the word would be allowed.
As of last week, the list — provided in response to a new request from The Baltimore Sun — had increased to 4,606 entries, with ALLAH still among them.
Buel Young, an MVA spokesman, said the inclusion of ALLAH was again an error. "In fact, it has been issued to a vehicle," he said.
The list's existence speaks to a question central to the current Supreme Court case: Should states be allowed to pick and choose which messages to ban?
It also highlights disparities between the MVA's "organizational plates" program and its "vanity plates" program, and how each considers messages about sexual orientation and religion, and treats words with perceived sexual meaning.
For instance, the MVA's objectionable list bans vanity plates with the words GAY or LESBIAN, as well as those with anti-gay slurs. However, drivers can get an organizational plate for Equality Maryland, the state's largest nonprofit advocacy organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Among the 114 banned entries added since 2012 are BOOBS and TATAS — the latter a word claimed by some breast cancer survivors in recent years — though BOOBIES was already on the list in 2012. Drivers can get an organizational plate for the Hats Off to Breast Cancer Foundation, though.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the Texas case in June, and Young said the MVA will "review the court's decision once it is made."