Ellis: Texas should have right to select messages it wants to promote

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Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will determine whether the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles must issue Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plates that bear two images of the Confederate battle flag – a flag that never flew over our state and is now closely associated with violent hate groups.

I have been quite vocal in my opposition to the proposed license plates over the past four years. During that time, I received numerous phone calls, letters, and emails from individuals who are excited to tell me the “true” history of the Confederacy, complete with why Texans should be proud to have license plates bearing the image of the stars and bars.

Winston Churchill said that “history is written by the victors.”  This is apparently true except for the Civil War. Confederate apologists have spent 150 years trying to change the Civil War into something that it was not. Here’s what it was: an insurrection against the United States government with the goal of maintaining the institution of African slavery.  Instead of facing that reality, Confederate apologists continue to try to rewrite history, couching it as a war in defense of states’ rights.

Rather than rely on modern interpretations of history, I believe the best source of information for why Texas joined the Civil War is the words of men who actually made the decision to secede. The Texas declaration of secession, issued in February 1861 when the state seceded, provides an illuminating glimpse into their motivations.

The declaration denounces the United States for “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”

It goes on: “[w]e hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

That is the real Civil War: men fighting to preserve the fundamental wrong of one human owning another. Slavery was not a minor cause – it was an essential part of the call to arms.

That is the backdrop of the legal case that was argued on Monday, when the key issue was whether specialty license plates are government speech. If the Supreme Court finds they are, then Texas has discretion over which plates to issue. Conversely, if specialty plates are found to be private speech, then the government’s power to limit a message is restricted, and as a former Texas solicitor general contends, “[e]verything would have to come in – swastikas, sacrilege, overt racism, you name it.”

Denying Texas the right to disassociate itself from messages that it does not wish to convey would have obvious negative consequences. If the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot exercise some discretion to reject offensive plates and must instead merely act as a rubber stamp, are there zero limitations to what we will soon see on Texas license plates?

I do not want to see a license plate supporting the American Nazi Party any more than I want to see one supporting the Confederacy. In fact, I would rather shut down the entire specialty license plate program than see a swastika on a state-issued plate.

The state government must have a right to select the messages that it will promote. Texans remain free to slap the Confederate battle flag on bumper stickers, but the Department of Motor Vehicles should be able to reject that message on our license plates.

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