In summer 2012, Ku Klux Klan members posed mid-salute on a roadside in North Georgia — an area they wanted to clean up in the state’s Adopt-A-Highway program.
The International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan filled out an application to claim a one-mile stretch on Route 515 in the Appalachian Mountains near the North Carolina border. Members wanted the name “IKK Realm of GA, Ku Klux Klan” to appear on the road sign.
“We just want to clean up the doggone road,” Klansman Harley Hanson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “We’re not going to be out there in robes.”
But the state’s Department of Transportation denied the request.
The commissioner explained in a rejection letter that the area had a 65 MPH speed limit and was not safe for volunteers. The other issue was with their name: KKK.
“The impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which as a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern,” according to the letter.
A three-year-long fight for free speech has led the Klan to Georgia’s Supreme Court. The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization with a storied past fighting for First Amendment rights, has been leading the charge.
“The government cannot be a censor of free speech,” Alan Begner, an attorney for the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, told The Washington Post.
It was May 2012 when the group applied to Georgia’s Adopt-A-Highway Program, which encourages citizen volunteers who “serve as visible reminders to the public that we are all stewards of the land” to collect trash on state roadsides, according to its Web site.
The state’s Department of Transportation rejected the application the next month.
“This is about membership building and rebranding their name in a public way,” former state representative Tyrone Brooks (D), who once headed the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “If the state approves [their application] then they are complicit.”
(Brooks was recently sentenced to federal prison for tax, mail and wire fraud.)
The Department of Transportation now has a bulletin posted on its site: “Georgia DOT is currently not accepting new participants in the Adopt-A-Highway program while we update our policies and procedures. Please check back regularly for updates to the program.”
The ACLU got behind the Klan and filed a lawsuit in September 2012 in Fulton County Superior Court. The suit requested an injunction to stop the state from denying the group a permit as well as a declaratory judgment, arguing that the state’s Adopt-A-Highway program violated due process “because the terms relevant to the application are undefined and unconstitutionally vague” and “because said procedures lack any avenue to appeal denial of a permit,” according to court documents.
The lawsuit named, among others, the state, the department of transportation and the governor.
The Georgia Department of Transportation referred The Post to the state’s attorney general’s office, which had no comment.
In November 2014, a trial judge issued a final order ruling that the state’s rejection was an unconstitutional infringement on the KKK’s right to free speech and, further, that the state could not deny applications to its Adopt-A-Highway program out of “public concern” based on the group’s history.
The state appealed.
The state Court of Appeals issued an order Tuesday to have the case moved the state’s top court, in part because the state has requested sovereign immunity.
The ACLU has a history with similar free speech cases. The organization made headlines in 1978 when it represented a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through a Chicago suburb that was home to many of the city’s Holocaust survivors – and it won.
“Many of the laws the ACLU cited to defend the group’s right to free speech and assembly were the same laws it had invoked during the Civil Rights era,” according to the organization, “when Southern cities tried to shut down civil rights marches with similar claims about the violence and disruption the protests would cause.”
The neo-Nazi group later opted to rally in a different area.
Maya Dillard Smith, executive director for ACLU in Georgia, said the recent KKK court ruling provides an opportunity for the state Supreme Court to “hear why it’s important for all citizens throughout the state to be given access to justice.”
“This case is really important not necessarily because of the group represented, but because if denied access to court, it would in essence mean all other groups … could potentially be denied entry into the court system,” Smith said in a statement to The Post. “Our case involves that very issue, since Georgia has claimed it’s immune from us or any other group suing them without their permission. We cannot let the state get away with that kind of unchecked power.”
This post has been updated.