The First Amendment and auto tags Confederate battle flag: Judge's ruling questions state control of what's on car licenses.

February 27, 1997

TAKEN TO ITS ultimate absurdity, U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin's ruling that Maryland officials cannot deny groups special vehicle license plates could make it impossible to stop citizens from requesting profanities on their tags. In fact, Judge Smalkin's decision could even make it illegal for the state to assign alphanumeric license plates to car owners because it would violate the right to free speech.

The judge's decision equating an auto license plate with free speech stretches credulity. Since when did the issuance of identification tags for cars and trucks become First Amendment matters? The right to have the license plate of your choice is not guaranteed by the Constitution.

Still, state motor vehicle officials bear much of the responsibility for creating this absurd situation. First they started issuing vanity license plates for owners to create their own seven-letter messages. Then they issued group vanity plates with the name of the organization and a special series of numbers. And finally, ,, they let approved groups place symbols on their tags, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans with its Civil War battle flag.

Some people complained that this flag was offensive to blacks because of its linkage to slavery and the Confederacy. The Motor Vehicle Administration revoked the group's vanity plates -- until Judge Smalkin intervened.

The best way to end this spiraling controversy would be for the state to put an end to all vanity license plates for cars and trucks. Let's go back to the good old days when tags were strictly used for identification purposes -- not to send a message.

Otherwise, you had better get ready for Friends of the Aryan Nation tags, complete with a swastika, or Army of God tags with a depiction of an aborted fetus on the car license plate. Repugnant? You bet. All the more reason to return vehicle licensing to simple, alphanumeric tags -- picked at random -- that don't offend people, or incite overexuberant judges.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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