After having it’s application to “adopt a highway” denied by the State of Georgia, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan is asking the American Civil Liberties Union for help. “We are considering next steps and whether or not we will support the group,” said Debbie Seagraves, executive director for the ACLU of Georgia. “We know this is unpopular,” she admits, but if her organization helps the International Keystone Knights of the KKK, it is not because it agrees with their beliefs. It will be based on legal precedent and a legal view of whether the KKK’s freedom of speech has been violated.
The Klan chapter in Union County, Georgia, had asked to clean a part of Georgia State Route 515 in the far northern part of the state near the North Carolina state line. The application was rejected on Tuesday. Keith Golden, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, wrote the chapter’s secretary that officials determined the mountain roadway, with a speed limit of 65 mph, was not a safe place for cleanup volunteers to work. CNN reports that Golden’s letter to April Chambers cited other concerns. “The impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long-rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern,” he wrote. “Impacts include safety of the traveling public, potential social unrest, driver distraction or interference with the flow of traffic.”
Seagraves said that the ACLU has to gather facts about the case before deciding whether to become involved, but she nonetheless pointed out a pair or rebuttals to the arguments made in the letter. If the speed limit on the highway is too fast, the program is supposed to find another, suitable place to adopt for cleanup, she said. Also, she said, the state cannot constitutionally deny speech because others may behave badly. If the ACLU chooses to represent the KKK chapter, the next step would be for the ACLU to contact the state to talk about the relevant laws, Seagraves said. A lawsuit could follow. “We try to avoid litigation, but we don’t mind litigating if necessary,” she said.
In a nearly identical case in Missouri in 2005, a court ruled that the state discriminated against the KKK by denying it participation in a program open to all organizations. It’s a difficult subject in Union County, where two residents — who asked not to be identified for safety reasons — said they’re concerned about the area’s reputation. “It makes people here look like they’re a bunch of stuck-in-the-past mountain folk,” said a woman who has lived in Blairsville for four years. “They don’t have a presence here. At least, they don’t make themselves visible.”
A local man who was born and raised in the area said he was worried that if people saw the Klan’s name on an adopt-a-highway sign, they would associate the county with the Klan. “I guess you’ve got the freedom to go out and hate people if you want, but I don’t want them here,” he said. “It gives us a bad name.” He said he wouldn’t feel uncomfortable driving through the area himself, but was concerned that others would be. “I’m white,” he said. “So I’m not the one they’re targeting. But I would feel bad if an African-American drove by and saw that.”
Ku Klux Klan members chant “white power” during a rally to recruit members on the steps of the Defiance, Ohio, courthouse in 1999.
Legally speaking, the Klan has every right to exist and to express its views, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh said. However, he said that doesn’t necessarily mean it has the right to participate in this government program. The question is whether or not displaying the Klan’s name on an adopt-a-highway government sign is a form of government speech. He said that legally, the government has a right to pick and choose what it says, just like anyone else. If displaying an organization’s name on an adopt-a-highway sign is considered an endorsement of that group, he said, the government has a right to deny participation to the Klan. But if the state does not consider displaying the name any indication of its relationship with the group, then all people and organizations have an equal right to participate, Volokh said. “Personally, I’m inclined to say that probably this should be seen as a government speech program because allowing such a sign is likely to be seen as some level of endorsement,” he said. But history shows that a legal ruling would not necessarily end the controversy.
In the Missouri case, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it wasn’t until November 30, 1999, that the state installed a sign noting that the KKK adopted a stretch of highway. Someone sawed the sign down that same night. When the sign was placed back up several months later, it was sawed off again, the newspaper reported. The state never replaced the sign and later named that stretch of highway for civil rights icon Rosa Parks. A sign in rural Delaware declaring that a neo-Nazi splinter group adopted a stretch of road was allowed by the state, but only after the wording of the group was changed from “Nazi Party” to “Freedom Party,” the Washington Times reported. In 2008, the California Department of Transportation was forced to pay a $157,500 legal settlement relating to a lawsuit by the San Diego Minutemen, an anti-illegal immigration group. According to the Orange County Register, the group had adopted a piece of a highway near a Border Patrol checkpoint. Immigrant groups were angered, and state officials moved the Minutemen’s stretch of highway to another, more remote location. The group sued, arguing that its freedom of speech was violated.
In reality, it’s likely to come down to an issue of freedom of speech. Unless the Klan is engaged in some type of unlawful activity, it’s hard to see how the government can deny them the opportunity to participate in the program, on the other hand, having an avowed racist organization recognized by the State as a civic organization is unimaginable. Since the Klan has a storied history of terrorism and civil rights violations, it would seem simple enough…just deny them on that basis.