AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Confederate flag is back in the news in the American South. Civil rights leaders in Georgia are decrying the state's approval of a new specialty license plate featuring the flag. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Adam Ragusea reports that state officials are in a tricky legal position.
ADAM RAGUSEA, BYLINE: The design is actually an updated version of a plate that's been available in Georgia 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. Ray McBerry is their spokesman.
RAY MCBERRY: We believe that all people ought to be able to celebrate their history and heritage, and that includes Southerners. 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.
RAGUSEA: Indeed, while Georgia's Department of Revenue ultimately approves or denies specialty plate designs, its criteria are broadly permissive. Cynthia Counts is a free-speech lawyer in Atlanta.
CYNTHIA COUNTS: 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. 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.
RAGUSEA: Counts recently won a case for a client whose application for a vanity plate Georgia initially denied. It read Gay Guy. Debate over controversial plates - from Gay Pride to Choose Life - is nothing new. Counts says the constitutional standard for a license plate is a little different than, say, a bumper sticker, because it's something the state ultimately issues.
COUNTS: There is a little more leeway given to the government to protect against things that could result in, you know, like fighting words.
RAGUSEA: And Georgia has been fighting over the Confederate emblem for a long time. Whether it should be part of the state flag has been a defining issue for three of the last four governors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST, "LARRY KING LIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Welcome to "Larry King Live." Tonight, flag flap in Georgia.
LARRY KING: With the '96 Olympics coming to Atlanta, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller leads the charge to get the Confederate symbol removed.
GOV. ZELL MILLER: 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...
RAGUSEA: The Confederate flag is a lightning rod across the entire South. But David Davis, professor of Southern studies at Mercer University, says the old Saint Andrew's cross evokes more recent memories in Georgia. It didn't become part of the state flag until 1956.
DAVID DAVIS: One reason for doing this might have been the upcoming centennial of the Civil War. But we were still a few years away from the centennial. What had actually happened just then was the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
RAGUSEA: 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.
STATE SEN. VINCENT FORT: I think it's offensive but at the same time, it's symbolic. And at the end of the day, symbols, for me, should take a backseat to substance.
RAGUSEA: So far, only 35 drivers have ordered the new plates.
For NPR News, I'm Adam Ragusea in Macon, Ga.
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