To John Adams, you are what you drive…or, rather, what’s expressed on your license plate.
“What you have on your license plate is everything,” he said as he walked outside City Hall in Riviera Beach, Fla. “It’s your message to the world.”
Adams runs the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Florida. What he wants to express on his license plate is his affinity with the Confederacy. A few years ago he designed a plate that reads “Confederate Heritage,” with a rebel flag in the center.
It’s a similar design currently on license plates in nine other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
But Florida requires the approval of the state legislature for all license plates and has repeatedly rejected the so-called “rebel plate.”
“We met all the requirements,” Adams explained. “Yet they would not take the bill up in the legislature.”
This snub, even as the state, said Adams, allowed other drivers “self-expression” -- including supporters of sea turtles and dolphins. All of Florida’s sports teams, including the Rays and the Heat, have license plates. There are even state plates that advocate for home ownership and family values. One plate reads simply “Trust God.”
All in all, Florida issues more than 120 specialty plates, which Adams says makes license plates free speech.
On March 30, he got a federal judge to agree, declaring the license approval process unconstitutional.
The judge said the process unfairly gives the state legislature “unfettered discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination.”
To Adams that means approval of his plate should be right around the corner.
But one Florida state legislator says not so fast.
“I think it's the wrong signal to send to not only our residents but our visitors,” said Geraldine Thompson, a state Representative from the Orlando area.
Thompson and other members of the state’s black legislative caucus are vowing to fight the plate if and when Adams finds a sponsor. Thompson says license plates are issued by the state and thus should not have offensive or bigoted messages.
“It's a symbol of oppression. It's a symbol of slavery,” she said. “And it's not something that I think we should perpetuate.”
Thompson says the judge’s ruling does not force the legislature to put every proposed symbol on a license plate.
“It only says we have to make the process fair and equal,” she said.
She said the rebel flag simply does not belong in Florida, which she pointed out had more lynchings of blacks in the 19th century than any other state.
“[The rebel flag] epitomized slavery. It epitomized oppression. It epitomized lynching and all of the things that we worked so hard for people to move beyond. And certainly we should not have it on our license plate.”
“Well,” Adams replied when told that Thompson finds his plate “inappropriate.” “Tell that to the 30,000 people who wanted to buy it.”
“The state legislature,” he explained. “doesn't get to decide what is popular or unpopular.”
Adams says he is prepared to sue again if the legislature denies his plate.