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.”