ATLANTA — As some vestiges of the Old South — symbols of heritage to some and of hate to others — make their way from places of prominence to museums, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan is fighting for its own spot in the public eye.
The Georgia Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday over the legality of the state’s denial of an Adopt-A-Highway application for the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2012, the KKK chapter from north Georgia sought to “adopt” one mile of roadway. The Georgia Department of Transportation denied the Klan’s application. Among Georgia’s reasons was that “the impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern.”
The Klan chapter said then that it would seek legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union. The group did call the ACLU, and in November 2014, a Georgia court sided with the Klan.
While the ACLU, an organization expressly dedicated to the defense of civil liberties, and the KKK, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as “the most infamous — and oldest — of American hate groups,” might make for strange bedfellows, both said they saw the case as a matter of free speech.
“The fundamental right to free speech is not limited to only those we agree with or groups that are inoffensive,” said Debbie Seagraves, executive director of ACLU Georgia, in a statement following the 2012 filing of the lawsuit.
In its arguments, the state saw the matter differently.
Partially relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that Texas is allowed to reject a license plate design featuring the Confederate flag, Georgia argued that participation in the Adopt-A-Highway program was an instance of government, not individual, speech.
“This case is about whether a state-designed, state-created sign, erected on a state highway, with the name Georgia in bold letters, constitutes the state’s own speech,” said state Assistant Attorney General Brittany Bolton.
This is not the first time an Adopt-A-Highway program has generated controversy.
Neo-Nazis, white supremacist groups and so-called “minutemen” have all joined similar community service programs. In the instances where legal challenges arose, the groups regularly retained their adopted roads over the wishes of the government, according to a New York Times report.
Regardless of what has happened in the past, the case in Georgia’s Court of Appeals may not amount to a decision about free speech, or even government speech like in the Texas license plate case. The Klan’s ability to challenge the state’s authority on the matter was a major question in the appeal, and the question grew murkier throughout Thursday’s proceedings.
Judge William M. Ray, one of the three judges hearing arguments, said, “We have a hard time figuring out when we have jurisdiction ourselves.”
The appeals court did not immediately issue a ruling.