Rebel flag still causing flap

February 25, 1997



Staff Writers

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have won a battle for special license plates bearing the Confederate flag. But the war might not be over yet.

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration could appeal U.S. District Judge Frederic Smalkin's Monday ruling that the battle flag on the special plates is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be prohibited.

Or the MVA could change the rules for all 265 organizations that have organizational plates.

The MVA maintains that the state should not be involved in the display of the Confederate battle flag, said agency spokeswoman Marilyn Corbett.


Meanwhile, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans hailed Smalkin's decision.

"Law-abiding groups should have protection under the First Amendment," said Joseph Bach of Hagerstown.

Bach said he believed any attempts to fight the ruling would be "spiteful."

"They don't want to be correct. They want to be politically correct," he said.

Patrick Griffin III, the lieutenant commander-in-chief of the national organization, on Tuesday received the first set of Sons of Confederate Veterans plates issued since the ruling. He put them on his Oldsmobile.

"My reaction is ecstatic. The judge made the only decision he could make," said Griffin of Darnestown, Md., who already had sets of the plates on his pickup truck and a Buick.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans maintain that they are a heritage group, not a hate group. Members say they despise the misuse of their symbol by groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Four people in Washington County and seven in Frederick County have the specialty plates. Statewide, 79 sets of the tags have been issued.

Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, is chairman of a committee that was formed to look into the flag flap. No legislative action is expected to be taken this year.

"I'm actually surprised," Poole, a lawyer, said of the ruling. "The judge gives a broader and stronger read of freedom of speech than what I had envisioned."

The ruling means that a license plate is, in effect, a "government billboard," he said.

It basically takes freedom of speech beyond what individuals can say to what individuals can say with the help of the government, he said.

"You could have some other consequences that could be surprising," he said.

People in Washington County might not be offended by the license plates, but they might be offended by those favored by other groups for whom the ruling opens the door, he said.

The committee will look into the future issuance of commemorative tags, he said.

Some have suggested the state restrict the size of groups eligible to receive specialty tags.

But Poole is concerned that would hurt small but well-known groups such as Congressional Medal of Honor winners.

MVA Administrator Ronald Freeland ordered a recall and ban of the Sons of Confederate Veterans plates on Jan. 2 after members of the Legislative Black Caucus said the plates were offensive because of the flag's ties to slavery.

Sen. Delores Kelley, a black Democratic lawmaker from Baltimore County, suggested one way to resolve the problem would be to remove all logos from plates and leave only the names of organizations.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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