This isn’t the story about a flag, but there’s a flag in this story.
On the same day the nation was reeling from the mass murder of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina by a calculating white gunman who reportedly made it clear to his victims the attack was inspired by racial hatred, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling saying that the state of Texas is within its right to refuse the depiction of the Confederate flag on personalized license plates issued by the state.
Though unrelated numerous ways, the stories about a vicious crime in one southern state and another’s legal battle over what can and cannot appear on a license plate are colliding as the two simultaneously touch on the long-simmering debate over the history of slavery and racism in the South—a legacy that lives on in the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes.
Though the court ruling regarding Texas “concerned larger issues of free speech and government sensitivity,” the specific challenge was brought by a group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who wanted to have the state issue plates depicting the Confederate flag. In the 5-4 ruling, the majority of justices agreed that a license plate is not just “personal speech” but also “government speech” which Texas has a right to control. In favoring the state’s argument, the court upheld the Texas decision to reject the specific license plate design because “a significant portion of the public associate the Confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups.”
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As the Washington Post reports:
Writing for the Guardian, columnist Scott Lemieux explains that the distinction between government and personal speech is an important one,
Which is where South Carolina comes in.
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Outrage is being widely expressed over the fact that even as U.S. and state flags were being flown at half-staff on Thursday across South Carolina in an expression of mourning for the nine victims of the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the Confederate flag flying on the state capitol grounds was still waving at the top of its pole throughout the day. As Kim Bellware reported for the Huffington Post:
Regardless of the legal constraints that may have held the flag aloft, wrote Justin Moyer at the Washington Post, “It just didn’t look good” for South Carolina. “As a pastor and members of his flock lay dead and the Supreme Court dealt a blow to those who wish to display Confederate flags on license plates in Texas,” he continued, “South Carolina seemed to be flaunting its heritage of slavery as the first state to secede from the Union. It was deplorable enough, critics said, that the flag was there in the first place.”
Among those saying that the most recent act of terrorism against black people in South Carolina should be taken as an opportunity to relegate the Confederate flag and the hatred it represents to the dustbin of history, was journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who penned a scathing indictment for The Atlantic with the simple title: “Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now.” He wrote:
In less than 24 hours, an online petition calling for the removal of all Confederate flags from state property had garnered more than 65,000 signatures.
And Twitter users chimed in: