How would you feel about driving down a southern highway and seeing a sign saying that section of asphalt has been adopted by a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan? Is it a case of free speech, or of promoting hated? Such speculation may be put to the test, if one group has its way. Its application for “adoption” has been denied by the state, but the group may be taking its case to the courts.
White line supremacists
The International Keystone Knights, a chapter of the KKK in Union County, Ga., applied to the “Adopt-A-Highway” program in May. The group wants to take responsibility — and credit — for cleaning a one-mile stretch of Route 515 in the Appalachians, near the border of Georgia and North Carolina border.
A sign proclaiming the “adoption” will be the first thing motorists see upon entering the Peach state. Above the group’s moniker on the sign would be the slogan, “Lakes, mountains, scenic beauty and friendly people.”
Tuesday, however, the application was denied by the Georgia Transportation Department, saying, in a statement, that the program is meant for only “civic minded” groups:
“Participation in the program should not detract from its worthwhile purpose. Promoting an organization with a history of inciting civil disturbance and social unrest would present a grave concern to the department. Issuing this permit would have the potential to negatively impact the quality of life, commerce and economic development of Union County and all of Georgia.”
Harley Hanson, known as the exalted cyclops of Georgia, is moving ahead with both eyes open, however. He says he will seek the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped a Missouri chapter of the KKK win a similar case. It is likely that the ACLU will cite the precedent in court and pursue a First Amendment defense, should it accept the case.
Hanson claims the group has changed its ways, and its concerns are merely for the beauty of the region. He said:
“We can’t change what happened, but we can still work for a better tomorrow. … It was not just to warn people, ‘Hey, the KKK lives next door,’ but to do some good for the community.”
State holds firm
Some, however, are advocating abolishing the Adopt a Highway program all together if legal remedies are not successful. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who labeled the KKK “a domestic terrorist group,” said:
“If the state would allow them to plant their name on one of its public highways in the home of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter, we would have to fight it with all of the resources at our disposal. … If we lose, we would ask the state to abolish the program. It’s not worth it.”
Free speech goes both ways
Argued as a free speech case — that the group was squelched merely for having an unpopular message — could indeed be a very tough one to beat. The state’s Adopt a Highway program already has a diversity of organizations in its rosters, making the KKK’s exclusion all the more obvious. In the past, other states have have attempted to neutralize similar “adoptions” by renaming the sections of road after civil rights icons. Missouri named its controversial stretch after Rosa Parks. Another, “adopted” by a Neo-Nazi group in the same state, became the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel Highway in 2009.
That is the First Amendment in action.