U.S. Appeals Court upholds ruling against N.C. Confederate license plate

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  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a lawsuit to restore North Carolina's discontinued license plate with a Confederate battle flag.
  • State officials stopped offering the specialty plate in 2021. A federal trial judge upheld that decision in March 2022.

A unanimous U.S. Appeals Court panel has ruled against a specialty license plate in North Carolina featuring the Confederate battle flag. The N.C. Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans had gone to court to revive the discontinued plate.

In an opinion taking up little more than one page, Judges Paul Niemeyer, Marvin Quattlebaum, and Henry Floyd rejected the Confederate group’s case.

The 4th Circuit appellate judges upheld a trial judge’s March decision to dismiss the lawsuit “for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.”

“NCSCV filed the complaint in state court, alleging that Defendants’ rejection of NCSCV’s specialty license plate design violated its rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection,” according to the unsigned Appeals Court opinion. “The design included the NCSCV’s insignia, which features a Confederate battle flag.”

State defendants moved the case to federal court, then asked for the dismissal. “On appeal, NCSCV reasserts its claims that Defendants’ rejection of NCSCV’s specialty license plate design violated its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. NCSCV also argues that North Carolina’s specialty license plate program expresses a state public policy that does not provide Defendants discretion to regulate license plate designs.”

Appellate judges disagreed. “We have thoroughly reviewed the briefs, joint appendix, and the entire record and find no reversible error.”

N.C. officials stopped offering the Sons of Confederate Veterans plates in January 2021. “Effective January 1, 2021, the Division of Motor Vehicles will no longer issue or renew specialty license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag or any variation of that flag,” according to a DMV statement at the time. “The Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has determined that license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag have the potential to offend those who view them. We have therefore concluded that display of the Confederate battle flag is inappropriate for display on specialty license plates, which remain property of the state.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans had argued that state law gave DMV officials no leeway to drop the plate. “The plain language of the statute requires no interpretation,” according to SCV’s brief in the 4th Circuit. “The statute requires the Division of Motor Vehicles to issue a special registration plate to a member of a nationally recognized civic organization whose member clubs in North Carolina are exempt from State corporate income tax … and which bear a word or phrase identifying the civic club and the emblem of the civic club. If those three specific elements exist as to the organization in question, its members are entitled to a special registration plate which identifies the individual as a member of that specific organization.”

State lawyers rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments. “It is difficult to imagine a claim more obviously foreclosed by precedent than the claim at the heart of this case,” according to the N.C. state government brief. “In early 2021, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (“NCDOT”) announced that it would no longer issue specialty license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag because it did not want state property to be used to convey an offensive message. SCV sued, alleging that the State’s decision denied its members ‘their right to freedom of speech.’”

“This exact First Amendment claim has already been categorically rejected, both by this Court and the Supreme Court,” state lawyers wrote, citing a 2015 case involving a ban on license plates for Sons of Confederate Veterans in Texas. “The Supreme Court deemed Texas’s actions constitutional, holding that specialty license plates communicate government speech and therefore fall outside the bounds of the First Amendment.”

The 4th Circuit “expressly applied that holding” the following year to reject a free-speech claim involving specialty plates in North Carolina, according to the state’s brief.