KKK Brings Fight to Adopt Georgia Highway to Court, Where the Klansmen Are Likely to Win

A member of the Ku Klux Klan salutes during American Nazi Party rally at Valley Forge National Park September 25, 2004 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of American Nazis from around the country were expected to attend.
Just here to pick up some trash, that's all. Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state of Georgia for denying a local Ku Klux Klan chapter's May application to participate in the state's Adopt-a-Highway program, Reuters reports. "We decided to take this case because it is such a clear violation of the speech rights of the group," said Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. "We can't let that slide."

Georgia governor Nathan Deal, the state's Department of Transportation commissioner Keith Golden, and many others have blasted the KKK. "A state road sign with 'KKK' on it would betray our values and would rightly offend the vast majority of Georgians," Deal's spokesman said. Golden wrote: "The impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long-rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern. Impacts include safety of the traveling public, potential social unrest, driver distraction or interference with the flow of traffic."

But the basis of those objections and the rejection of the KKK's application will likely spell doom for the state, unless it decides to say "screw it" and shut down its 23-year-old program.

In 2000, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling in favor of a Missouri KKK chapter that found the state unconstitutionally denied the group's application to adopt a highway, basically because the Klan is a hateful, robe-wearing, discriminating bunch of supremacists. The court held:

The State's purported reasons for denying the Klan's application are so obviously unreasonable and pretextual that, in the end, we are left only with the admitted reason the State was motivated to so carefully scrutinize the Klan's application as an explanation for the denial: that the State disagrees with the Klan's beliefs and advocacy. Nevertheless, the First Amendment protects everyone, even those with viewpoints as thoroughly obnoxious as those of the Klan, from viewpoint-based discrimination by the State. "Such interference with constitutional rights is impermissible."

(Emphasis added.) The state cleverly responded later by naming the highway that the KKK agreed to clean the Rosa Parks Freeway, although the group was later booted because they neglected to clean it.

The state does have an argument. In 1995, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Texas did not violate a KKK chapter's constitutional rights to adopt a highway outside a public housing project in order to prevent the Klan from terrorizing residents and frustrating a federal desegregation order. But the 5th Circuit also wrote that allowing the Klan to clean near the project "would frustrate the use of the State's public highways" because the residents and their families would refrain from using the roads. That's kind of like what Georgia's Department of Transportation commissioner said in the latter part of his argument, but Georgia's only got a leg to stand on if there's a similar group or residence nearby the stretch of State Route 515 in Union County that would be intimidated.

"All we want to do is adopt a highway," said the KKK's secretary April Chambers. "We're not doing it for publicity. We're doing it to keep the mountains beautiful. People throwing trash out on the side of the road ... that ain't right."

In the end, the court will probably decide that the KKK should be allowed to beautify those mountains, for the same reason the ACLU brought the case on the KKK's behalf: to protect free speech.