California’s state assembly passed a bill on Monday that would ban government entities from selling or exhibiting the Confederate flag, as well as related “Stars and Bars” merchandise.
The legislation would “prohibit the State of California from selling or displaying the Battle Flag of the Confederacy, or a similar image, or tangible personal property inscribed with such an image.” The bill passed in a 72-1 vote and will now move onto the state senate.
According to a statement from Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton), the author of the bill, the Confederate flag’s symbolism and history are “linked to the enslavement, torture and murder of millions of Americans through the mid-19th Century.” Hall introduced the law after his mother found replicas of Confederate currency — which has a flag on it — for sale at a State Capitol gift shop. The assemblyman’s office states that: “Hall’s mother was raised under segregated education laws in Texas and fled to California with her family seeking equality and opportunity.”
“California and its taxpayers will not be in the business of promoting racism, exclusion, oppression, or violence towards others,” Hall continued.
'Here is a symbol that's so vile, that carries such connotations, that we in the state do not want to be associated with it.'
Terry Schanz, Hall’s spokesman, told VICE News that the bill would prohibit flying the Confederate flag over a government building. The State of California would also be banned from selling license plates depicting the image, such as the plate introduced by Georgia in February that features a large Confederate flag.
Hall’s initial draft indiscriminately banned all Confederate flag sales on state property. This measure was motivated by a sign sold at state fairgrounds featuring the symbol and the slogan: “It’s still my flag.” Hall removed this specification to make non-government employees and businesses exempt.
"Here is a symbol that's so vile, that carries such connotations, that we in the state do not want to be associated with it," Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine), who voted in favor of the bill, told the Associated Press.
There are provisions in the bill to allow the display of the flag in an educational or historical context, such as a book or museum exhibit. However, selling Confederate flag items at state-supported museum gift shops would be banned.
When VICE News called the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington, California — the state’s only museum dedicated to the war — news of the bill was met with laughter by the museum’s staff, who were previously unaware of its existence. They were even more amused to learn that the law was introduced by the representative for their district.
A staff member confirmed that the museum’s gift shop sells Confederate flag memorabilia, including all three national flags. The museum is both a City of Los Angeles and a State of California Parks and Recreation facility.
The sole vote against the ban came from Assemblyman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly (R-Hesperia). He said he was not defending the symbol, but instead the First Amendment.
"We shouldn't be here picking the kind of speech that we like. I abhor racism but the concept that in a country that was founded on the right of free speech... that we are going to ban certain types of speech is antithetical to the First Amendment," Donnelly said from the Assembly floor.
According to Ken Paulson, the president of the First Amendment Center, this ban isn’t a First Amendment issue at all. He told VICE News that it’s perfectly constitutional for a government to limit what it sells.
'There’s a huge difference between we the government and We the People.'
“Government has a right to its own speech and has the right to what it wants to say and what it doesn’t want to say, or what symbols it wants to embrace or doesn’t want to embrace,” Paulson said.
The law is similar to a company deciding not to sell a certain item. Paulson explained it would be a different story if California was banning the sale of the flag at private businesses. “There’s a huge difference between we the government and We the People.”
Steve Smith, the Heritage Officer of California’s branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), however, told VICE News that the ban was going too far. Smith added that SCV was against the bill and that the legislation blows things out of proportion.
“How are we going to get over this if we don’t sit down and discuss and find out the facts about the flag?” he said. “We need to discuss what the flag was about, there’s a lot of stuff we need to be educated about.”
Smith, who had two ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, said banning the flag will create more problems by avoiding the topic. According to him, the flag is not just a symbol that represents slavery, but it also honors the veterans who fought in the Civil War.
Smith's viewpoint can be seen as controversial, but Joan Waugh, a Civil War historian at UCLA, says the historical symbolism of the flag is worth considering — especially as the 150th anniversary of the war approaches.
'I don’t think history is something you can pretend didn't happen.'
“The Confederate battle flag rather than being an artifact of historical importance has become a political football,” Waugh told VICE News.
She said the flag has become a symbol of the Confederacy as a democratic slave republic, and that it should be banned from state flags. (Mississippi is currently the only state with the design on its flag.) Waugh said, however, that a ban like the one in California might go too far in ignoring the history behind the symbol.
“I don’t think history is something you can pretend didn't happen,” Waugh added. “I think it's dangerous to engage in that kind of historical amnesia, we do need to know what it means.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB