ORLANDO – A federal district judge’s ruling striking down parts of Florida’s law governing specialty license plates is a welcome victory for both free speech and for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, says the non-profit organization’s spokesman.
But without a ruling against the Florida Legislature’s ability to vote down license plates that lawmakers consider controversial, not enough has changed to enable the Sons of Confederate Veterans to get a “Confederate Heritage” specialty license plate, said John Adams, vice president of the Florida division of the non-profit group.
“I certainly applaud the judge’s fairness in handling this,” Adams said. “I think the decision was the right decision. But I hoped he would have gone a little bit further, because the judgment as it stands leaves the Legislature with room to do what it always does, which is discriminate.”
Federal District Judge John Antoon II issued an order knocking down parts of the Florida statute governing the procedure for applying for, and getting approval for, specialty license plates. The judge ruled that aspects of the law were an infringement on the free speech guarantees provided by the First Amendment.
Antoon ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans two years ago, after the Florida Legislature and the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles refused to approve the organization’s proposed “Confederate Heritage” license plate.
When the non-profit initially applied for the license plate, Adams said, he had expected it to be a routine matter.
“I had no problem with the system as it was, except that once you had jumped through all these hoops, the legislators were capable of shooting down what you’ve done,” he said, noting that Sons had fulfilled all the requirements of getting a specialty plate, including demonstrating they had 30,000 potential buyers and submitting a financial and marketing plan for it.
The problem, he added, was Florida lawmakers thought the idea was too hot to handle.
“When you spend $120,000 to $150,000 getting this, and then turn around and have the Legislature boot you as a political football, that’s the issue that we had,” he said. “Well, we’ve still got that issue.”
The judge struck down the process established by the Department of Motor Vehicles, including the schedules and fees for getting a special themed license plate. But the judge did not strike down the part of the law giving lawmakers final approval over the content of each new specialty plate.
“The DMV is now out of this, and they were not partisan,” Adams said. “They were just checking the list and making sure everyone was doing what they’re supposed to do. What got struck down was the DMV’s process. We were hoping that the judge would throw out where the Legislature must approve it. Instead what he did was he got rid of the part where the DMV has all of these requirements.”
That forces Sons, he said, to go back to square one and ask state lawmakers to approve the new plate – which he expects won’t be an easy task, largely because of political correctness.
“We were told as much,” he said. “The chairman of the (legislative) committee said the tag was too controversial to even spend the time reviewing it. They thought it was going to take up too much discussion. The legislature didn’t even bother raising any issues about it. They were just terrified about it. Political correctness is the problem.”
Adams said that’s a shame, because his organization’s mission – and activities – are totally misunderstood.
“We’re a historical preservation non-profit,” he said. “We do real controversial things like clean up cemeteries, and survey and get headstones for soldiers who don’t have any marker. We have for years, close to 20 years now, funded the restoration of Confederate flags in Tallahassee, since it can cost $20,000 apiece to restore them. We’re a benevolent historical organization trying to restore a battlefield or do research for museums.”
Doug Guetzloe, the political consultant who worked with the Sons of Confederate Veterans on behalf of the heritage license plate, said the non-profit has unfairly gotten a bad deal from lawmakers.
“It’s a historical organization and it’s in virtually all states as a source of great pride,” Guetzloe said. “Opponents look at the word ‘confederate’ and they think slavery, and say it’s racist. The so-called mainstream media likes to characterize the confederate cause as racist, and it’s not.”
Guetzloe noted that in addition to supporting the Confederate Heritage license plate, he also supported a Martin Luther King Jr. specialty license plate for Florida. He also praised the judge’s ruling, saying it will likely force lawmakers to approve the Confederate plate in the near future.
“This was a huge victory for the First Amendment,” Guetzloe said. “The judge really got it right. He knocked out the entire process. I think the Florida Legislature will reverse itself and approve the plate now that the judge has knocked down that process.”
Adams said he does expect to keep fighting for the specialty plate, even if it has been a uphill battle so far.
“I think free speech does belong to everybody,” he said. “I don’t know if I will use the court case to build on that idea, but I’ll use the court case for whatever advantage I have with the Legislature now.”
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