Georgia KKK group seeks equal rights ... to roadway trash

It's about free speech, ACLU tells appeals court on Klan's behalf

On the same day that South Carolina’s governor signed a bill into law to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds, lawyers representing a Georgia chapter of the Ku Klux Klan argued before an appeals court in Atlanta that the white supremacy group — which rallies around the flag — should be allowed to pick up trash along a North Georgia road.

The Georgia Court of Appeals will now take a few months to decide whether the state of Georgia violated the International Keystone Knights of the KKK Realm of Georgia’s constitutional rights of free speech by refusing to allow it to participate in a highway cleanup program.

In May 2012, the group sought to receive recognition from the state for cleaning litter from a 1-mile stretch of Ga. 515 in Blairsville near the North Carolina state line as part of the Adopt-A-Highway program.

It became a national story and fodder for comedy, even prompting Jay Leno to tweet: “KKK wants to join Georgia’s Adopt-A-Highway for litter removal. So you’re just replacing litter w/white trash.”

Georgia transportation officials got the message and rejected the request to allow the KKK to up trash along the stretch of road that hugs the Blue Ridge Mountains in Union County. They cited public safety concerns while noting that the program is aimed at “civic-minded organizations,” not hate groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation sued on the Klan’s behalf, arguing that the group’s right to free speech was violated. In November, a judge ruled in the organization’s favor. The state appealed.

April Chambers and Harley Hanson, who calls himself the Grand Cyclops of the Klan’s chapter, are the plaintiffs in the case. Neither was in court Thursday.

Arguments were heard by Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes, Judge Carla Wong McMillian and Judge William M. Ray III.

The Adopt-A-Highway program, a mainstay in many states, allows groups — churches, organizations, fraternities — to adopt a stretch of highway with the promise that they will help keep it clean. The group’s logo or name is usually attached to a state-issued sign on the stretch of roadway.

On the matter of free speech, Brittany Bolton, an attorney for the state, said the road signs belong to the state, and the right to control the content of road signs is “government speech,” which is not covered under the First Amendment.

Bolton said motorists looking at a road sign emblazoned with a Klan logo “would have no doubt about who the speaker is, and that is the state.”

In her argument Bolton compared the case to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave Texas the right to refuse to issue plates bearing the Confederate battle flag.

But Maya Dillard Smith, the new executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said that regardless of any personal thoughts about the Klan, protecting the First Amendment is at the core of the argument. Several years ago federal courts nixed Missouri’s bid to ban the KKK from participating in that state’s highway cleanup program.

“Here, the state of Georgia has created a program where it elicits participation from civic-minded organizations. But when the state opened this to everybody, it treated the KKK differently. This is a gross infringement,” Smith said. “Today, it is the Ku Klux Klan, tomorrow it will be Black Lives Matter. Today is about protecting freedom of speech.”