Why the SCV will Lose in Lexington, and Win in Texas
Several weeks ago the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit in federal court in Roanoke against elected officials in the City of Lexington, in response to that community’s adoption of a new ordinance barring anything other than official U.S., Virginia and city flags being flown at public facilities downtown and on the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Concurrently, the Texas Division of the SCV is pursuing legal action against the state here, challenging the state’s rejection of a special license plate promoting the SCV. Both lawsuits lean heavily on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. While both these cases are only beginning their journey through the courts, and there are plenty of arguments yet to be made on both sides, I believe the SCV will lose in Lexington, but prevail in Texas. And the Equal Protection Clause lies at the core of both outcomes.
Lexington first. The lawsuit names the City of Lexington and eight individuals, in their “official capacity,” as defendants. These include Mayor Mimi Elrod, City Manager Jon Ellestad, and all six members of the current City Council. Mary P. Harvey-Halseth, a council member who voted against the ordinance, and David Cox, another member who was absent from the meeting, are also included as defendants. You can read the SCV’s federal complaint here (which includes the text of the new ordinance on p. 6), and the minutes of the September 1, 2011 Lexington City Council meeting here.
Public display of Confederate flags — as Brooks Simpson points out, there’s not just one — has long been a contentious issue in Lexington. Twenty years ago, the city tried to ban displays of the Confederate flag on public property, and lost their case in 1993 (Sons of Confederate Veterans, Virginia Division v. City of Lexington, Virginia, et al.,). At that time, the court ruled that the city could not prevent others
to wear, carry, display or show, at any government-sponsored or government-controlled place or event which is to any extent given over to private expressive activity, the Confederate Flag or other banners, emblems, icons, or visual depictions. . . .
The emphasis here is mine, and it’s central to the court’s decision. The ruling in 1993 is based not only on the First Amendment right of Free Speech, but also on the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, that requires governmental entities to enact laws and policies in an equitable way, without making exceptions, good or bad, for any particular group. That’s clearly what the court had in mind when ruled that the Confederate flag could be displayed in any forum that “is to any extent given over to private expressive activity.” If you do it for one, you have to do it for another.
The Equal Protection Clause is important here because the First Amendment, on its own, is insufficient when it comes to government-sponsored or government-hosted expression. The First Amendment, by itself, is not enough. Freedom of Speech has never been absolute; it does not extend to libelous speech, or direct incitement to violence. And there’s nothing about the First Amendment that obligates Lexington to host on its property any private organization’s emblem or banner — not mine, not yours, and not the Virginia SCV’s. First Amendment concerns only become relevant here if the City of Lexington extends that privilege to some, but not others.
The City of Lexington understood this when crafting the ordinance to exclude all flags except those of select government entities — federal, state and local. The ordinance bars Confederate flags, but only because it bars all others, including those of the two universities in town, the Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee. There’s no question that, embarrassed by the conjunction on the calendar of Lee-Jefferson Day and the MLK federal holiday, they were seeking to find a legal way to resolve future conflicts, and so adopted an ordinance that would bar all other flags. That’s a calculation the city council in Lexington chose to make, and they’re on solid legal ground. Even one of the leaders of the “Virginia Flaggers,” a group that protests perceived slights to Confederate symbols and who’s an outspoken critic of the Lexington ordinance, acknowledged at the time of its passage that the “ordinance is air tight.” I agree.
The Texas case, by contrast, presents an entirely different set of facts – namely, that the state already offers dozens of different plate designs for private organizations and causes. Like dolphins? There’s a plate for that. Proud of your alma mater? There’s a plate for that. Are you a Master Gardener? A Dallas Mavericks fan? Do you love red grapefruit? There are plates for all those things. Why, we have plates for schools that aren’t even in Texas. And that’s why, in my view, Texas will be unable to defend its decision last November to deny the SCV plates. If you do it for one, you have to do it for another. And when it comes to specialty license plates, Texas already does it for damn nearly everybody.
As it happens, my own county’s Tax Assessor-Collector, Cheryl Johnson, sits on the TxDot board that considers plates, and voted in favor of the plate the first time it came up for a vote. She later explained her vote by saying that the SCV “have sued before to get the license plate [in other states] and have won. I voted in favor because I didn’t think the state would win any lawsuit.” She’s right about that last part, in my view. (That first vote, in which Johnson voted in favor of the proposal, was a tie; she was not present for the November meeting where it was voted down, 8-0.)
The Lexington and Texas cases bear some similarities; both challenge governmental entities’ decisions to bar the Confederate Battle Flag from display on a public venue. Both lawsuits also base their core arguments on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. But the specific facts of the two cases are miles apart. So long as Lexington continues to bar all outside banners, their ordinance almost certainly falls in line with the Equal Protection Clause, and so passes constitutional muster. Texas, on the other hand, has a years-long history of granting specialty plates to just about any organization that seeks one.
They haven’t got a legal leg to stand on.
Image: Virginia Flaggers rally in January 2012 at Hopkins Green in Lexington to call for the defeat of Mayor Mimi Elrod. Image via thenews-gazette.com.