By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Dec 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to weigh in on whether Texas officials should have approved a specialty license plate that displays the Confederate flag.
The case raises the issue of how states can allow or reject politically divisive messages on license plates without violating free speech rights.
The Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc said its members' free speech rights were violated when the state, which has a program that allows groups to suggest messages to be used on specially designed plates, declined to approve the plate.
The proposed design featured a Confederate battle flag surrounded by the words "Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896." The flag, synonymous with the states that fought to secede from the United States in the U.S. Civil War, is a blue cross inlaid with white stars over a red background.
In rejecting the proposal, the state said it had received public comments that suggested "many members of the general public find the design offensive."
The legal issue is whether messages on state-issued license plates represent speech by the government or an endorsement of a private message. The latter constitutes "viewpoint discrimination" and is a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Texas officials did not have grounds to reject the Confederate plate.
A ruling is expected by the end of June.
The case is Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-144. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Gunna Dickson)