KKK tries to adopt a highway in Georgia: Is that protected free speech?

The American Civil Liberties Union is defending the KKK's right join Georgia's Adopt-A-Highway program. The case now goes to the Georgia Supreme Court. 

(AP Photo/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curtis Compton)
From left, Knighthawk, April Hanson and her husband Harley Hanson, members of the International Keystone Knights Realm of Georgia, perform a traditional Klan salute along the portion of highway they want to adopt allowing them to put up a sign and do litter removal near Blairsville, Ga., June 10, 2012. The Ku Klux Klan group wants to join Georgia's "Adopt-A-Highway" program for litter removal. The state denied their application. decisions on the application.

A Ku Klux Klan group's First Amendment rights will be determined by Georgia's highest court after the state's Court of Appeals says it doesn't have jurisdiction over whether the state violated those rights by rejecting it from a highway cleanup program.

The order was issued Tuesday, transferring the case from the Court of Appeals to the state Supreme Court.

The International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan filed an application to "adopt" a mile of road in 2012, which the Georgia Department of Transportation denied. In its rejection letter, the department stated "the impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation, a group committed to protecting civil liberties, came to the defense of the KKK, one of the United State's oldest and most infamous hate groups, in an unexpected alliance inspired by the First Amendment.

The ACLU swiftly filed a lawsuit on the Klan's behalf, on the grounds that the group's right to free speech right was violated by the state's denial.

“Many people may find the views expressed by groups like the IKKK abhorrent. But there is nothing American about taking away the right to express those views or undertake a project, such as notification of sponsorship of a highway cleanup, which is otherwise open to all,” said Chara Fisher Jackson, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Georgia, in a statement at the time of the initial lawsuit. “Freedom of speech is at the very core of American values.”

A judge ruled in the ACLU's favor in November 2014, and the state of Georgia appealed.

The US Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling back in June that Texas was correct to reject a proposal for license plates that bore a Confederate flag on the grounds that it was offensive to a "significant portion" of the public may provide some legal grounds upon which the KKK's ability to adopt a stretch of Georgia highway might be denied.

As the Georgia transportation officials cited when they rejected the proposal initially: "encountering signage and members of the KKK along a roadway would create a definite distraction to motorists."

If such a distraction would offend – and whether or not such offense is constitutional – is now up to Georgia's Supreme Court.

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