To Block Klan, Arundel Ends Cleanup
By Jefferson Morley
Anne Arundel County abolished its volunteer roadside cleanup program yesterday rather than face a court challenge over the Ku Klux Klan's desire to pick up litter along a stretch of highway marked with signs saying, "Invincible Empire Realm of Maryland."
"There will be no hate signs in Anne Arundel County," County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) declared at a news conference announcing the decision. County officials estimated it would cost more than $20,000 to clean up the 26 miles of road now maintained by 23 volunteer groups.
Owens suspended the county's Adopt-a-Road program last October after Gene Newport Jr., of Annapolis, submitted a request on behalf of the white supremacist group to adopt a one-mile stretch of Gambrills Road south of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The American Civil Liberties Union notified Owens that it would sue the county for violating the Klan's First Amendment rights if the racist group were barred from the program.
"Our chances of winning in court were slim," Owens said. "It would have been grandstanding and a waste of taxpayers' money to go to court."
Dwight Sullivan, the ACLU staff attorney representing the Klan, called Owens's decision "questionable public policy."
"It gives the KKK an enormous amount of power to shut down the government programs," he said. "The best remedy for bad speech is more speech."
A Klan spokesman, Roger Kelly, of Frederick, said Owens's decision was "childish and immature."
"She's judging us by other Klan groups," said Kelly, who identified himself as an imperial wizard of the Invincible Empire. "There's nothing violent about us. We're a community group that does helping things: cutting firewood, mowing lawns, taking up collections for sick people, that sort of thing."
Starting today, county work crews will begin taking down 52 signs across the county that display the names of groups that pick up litter.
"I'll feel a loss," said Mark Young, owner of a Mailboxes Etc. store that adopted a stretch of Admiral Drive in Annapolis in 1997. "It's a shame, because a lot of people get a great deal of satisfaction" out of participating.
Young declined to comment on Owens's decision, saying, "I'm sure she's made it based on her people giving her their best advice."
Young said he and his five employees still will pick up litter along the road three times a year.
Gregory Billings, owner of Outback Septic, which had adopted O'Brecht Road in Annapolis, said he, too, will continue to maintain the road. "I hate to see the program abolished," he said. "But I'm glad the KKK's name isn't on any sign."
Owens, who said she made her decision with "great regret," thanked participants in the program. She said they soon would receive commendations from the county.
The ACLU's Sullivan said his legal position on behalf of the Klan was based on a 1997 case in which Maryland tried to bar an organization called the Sons of the Confederacy from putting its name and symbol on license plates. A federal judge ruled that the group could not be barred from a public program open to other organizations.
Sullivan also cited a 1992 decision by a federal judge in Arkansas that the Klan could not be barred from a roadside cleanup program.
Owens said that when the KKK adopted a road in Arkansas, motorists went out of their way to dump trash on that road. "The people who live on Gambrills Road would have their rights violated. I couldn't do that to them," she said.
Florida newspapers reported that when Pasco County put up Adopt-A-Road signs bearing the Klan's name in 1993, they were torn down so often the state refused to keep paying to replace them and the Klan gave up.
Texas took a more aggressive stand when a Klan affiliate applied to participate in a cleanup program near Fort Worth. The state attorney general filed a federal lawsuit claiming the Klan intended to intimidate minorities by raising signs, and the Klan withdrew its application.
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