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License plate debate goes to Supreme Court

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Is the license plate on the back of your car a form of free speech and, if so, who controls it?

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide the question, and there are Florida ties to the case going back to a 2009 effort to create a Confederate license plate.

The ACLU has been instrumental in suits in other states.

Baylor Johnson of ACLU Florida issued a statement Monday: "States have a choice when it comes to license plates: either produce only plates that express no position, or allow all messages to be represented, so that those who disagree with or find offensive certain plates can demand their own."

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in late March.

Florida has more than 100 specialty plates. A Son's of the Confederacy plate is not one of them. But it could have been. In 2009, organizers collected thousands of signatures and put up a $60,000 deposit, both requirements of the law. But lawmakers never gave the plate idea a hearing.

Bob Hurst was the organization's lieutenant commander at the time.

"I mean, you earn money off them," Hurst said. "At the time we had probably 25,000 or 30,000 people who indicated to us they would buy our plates before we even issued them."

It was African-American lawmakers who killed the Confederate plate. But now the plate could be back.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Texas' refusal to allow the plate, framing it as a free speech issue.

A Confederate flag flew over the state Capitol in Tallahassee until 2001. A Confederate soldier still graces the state seal in the Capitol Rotunda.

At Florida A&M University there was mixed reaction.

"I probably would feel very uncomfortable with that. I wouldn't really agree with it," FAMU student Taylor Jones said of allowing the plate. "I mean, it's up to the state. I hope that it doesn't happen at all."

But another student saw a different side.

"I guess it would be an example of freedom of speech," said FAMU student Stratton Thompson.

The "Choose Life" license plate is also on the high court's agenda because pro-choice forces were denied a "Respect Choice" plate.