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Georgia Clears The Road For Confederate-Themed License Plate

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The Confederate battle flag is back in the news in the American South, as civil rights leaders in Georgia decry the state government's approval of a new specialty license plate.

The design is actually an updated version of what has been available for years. The original had one small flag in the corner. This new version adds a background image of the Confederate emblem across the entire width of the plate.

The design was submitted by the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Spokesman Ray McBerry says they see the flag as a symbol of their roots.

"We believe that all people ought to be able to celebrate their history and their heritage, and that includes Southerners," says McBerry. "We did anticipate that there could be some folks who would not like that, but we encourage them to go and make application for their own specialty plates."

Indeed, while Georgia's Department of Revenue ultimately approves or denies specialty plate designs, its criteria are broadly permissive. Cynthia Counts, a free speech lawyer in Atlanta, says that while she doesn't find the flag appealing, she understands the state's reasoning for upholding it.

"It's not a plate I'm ever going to buy, right? But at the same time there's a bedrock principle in the First Amendment. It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out," says Counts. "There was an interview I read where somebody said, 'Well, we don't have Black Power plates.' Well, I hope somebody tries to get one."

Counts recently won a case for a client whose application for a vanity plate was initially denied in Georgia — it read "GAYGUY."

Debate over license plates — with themes ranging from "Gay Pride" to "Choose Life" — is nothing new. Counts says the constitutional standard for a license plate is a little different from that of, say, a bumper sticker, because it's something issued by the state.

"There is a little more leeway given to the government to protect against things that could result in, you know, fighting words," she says.

Georgia has been fighting over the Confederate emblem for a long time. And whether it should be part of the state flag has been a contentious issue for three of the last four governors.

"A state flag is a symbol of what a state stands for. And the state of Georgia in 1993 does not stand for slavery, it does not stand for insurrection," said then-Gov. Zell Miller at the time.

The Confederate flag is a lightning rod across the entire South. But David Davis, professor of Southern studies at Mercer University, says the old St. Andrew's cross evokes more recent memories in Georgia. It didn't become part of the state flag until 1956.

"One reason for doing this might have been the upcoming centennial of the Civil War. But we were a few years away from the centennial," says Davis. "What had actually happened, just then, was the Brown v. Board of Education decision."

By putting the emblem on their state flag, Davis says, lawmakers were signaling their resistance to integration. Nonetheless, the Georgia in which this new specialty plate has just arrived is a very different place. And while some civil rights advocates are calling on the state to rescind the design, black politicians, like state Sen. Vincent Fort, are not putting this at the top of their agenda.

"I think it's offensive, but at the same time it is symbolic," says Fort. "And at the end of the day, symbols for me should take a back seat to substance."

To date, only 35 drivers have ordered the new plates.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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