Confederate flag at centre of US Supreme Court free speech case

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Can motorists in the United States put the Confederate flag - seen by some as a symbol of racist oppression of the slavery-era South - on their license plates and call it freedom of expression?

The US Supreme Court seems sharply divided on the issue.

The nine justices this week heard arguments in a freedom of expression case looking at whether a state or its residents should control the images and slogans featured on state-issued license plates.

In Texas, the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed suit claiming their First Amendment right to free speech had been violated when state officials refused to honour their request for specialty plates bearing the Civil War-era flag.

The Supreme Court took the case after a federal appeals court backed the Sons of Confederate Veterans, saying Texas had discriminated against the group's view that the flag celebrates Southern heritage.

Nine other states allow specialty plates bearing the group's name and the flag.

In the United States, license plates often act as mini-billboards for a cherished cause or ideal. Some honour sports teams, universities and other organizations.

The motto "Live Free or Die" is printed on many license plates in New Hampshire, for example. Some plates in Kentucky, meanwhile, display an endorsement of the state's powerful coal industry.

Like most US states, Texas allows various interest groups to request the creation of such specialty license plates, and then allows motorists who pay an extra fee to purchase them.

State officials can however reject the request to create the plate if it determines that the requested message could be offensive to some Americans.

Such messages are the "government's speech," argued Scott Keller, the attorney representing the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Texas doesn't want to be associated with messages they find offensive." Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to agree, saying she saw no reason "why the government should be compelled to endorse a message it doesn't approve and does not want to be associated with".

But the Sons of Confederate Veterans argued that Texas has been inconsistent at best in its attitude toward Confederate symbols, often allowing it at government-organised parades and other events celebrating Southern Civil War history.

James George, the attorney for the group, called the government's refusal to issue the requested license plates a "sort of arbitrary control on speech".

That argument seemed persuasive for the court's more conservative justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts.

"If you don't want Al-Qaeda speech, don't go into the business of selling specialty plates," Roberts said.

The fact that a state's name is printed on the license plate, Roberts said, "doesn't mean you endorse" the message, adding: "Texas puts its name on everything." Others on the court, like Justice Elena Kagan, found themselves in somewhat of a middle ground.

Kagan, the court's newest member, suggested that Texas has had "greater control over its citizens' speech than we've been comfortable with", but seemed less than totally convinced by the Confederate group's case.

The Supreme Court was expected to issue its ruling by June.

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