ACLU to Represent Ku Klux Klan in Adopt-a-Highway Bid

Despite its reputation for representing liberal causes, the organization has taken on the case of a group widely regarded as a hate group, and not for the first time.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

A member of the Ku Klux Klan salutes during an American Nazi Party rally at Valley Forge National Park, September 25, 2004 in Valley Forge, Penn.

A Georgia-based Ku Klux Klan group was denied its chance to be part of that state’s Adopt-a-Highway program, but it hasn’t given up — and it now has an unlikely ally in its much-maligned cause.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia will represent the Klan in what it claims is its right to adopt a section of a Route 515 in Union County. “We have decided to represent the International Keystone Knights in this process of attempting to be included in the Adopt-a-Highway program,” said ACLU of Georgia executive director Debbie Seagraves. “Its pretty clear that there has been a violation of the First Amendment and the State of Georgia and the Department of Transportation chose to deny the permit based on viewpoint discrimination.

“They chose to bar them because some people find their message offensive.”

(MORE: Should the KKK Get to Adopt a Highway?)

The group, which calls itself the Georgia Realm of the International Keystone Knights of the KKK, had its application denied earlier this month. In a letter, the Georgia Department of Transportation told the KKK that “the impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern.” After the application was denied, Seagraves said, the Klan contacted the ACLU.

Although civil rights groups are disturbed by what they see as an attempt by a hate group to clean up its image, the KKK has precedent on its side. In 2005 the ACLU of Missouri successfully defended the Klan’s right to adopt a highway there after a different chapter had its application denied. The group won its case before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear the case.

Patricia Nelson, president of Adopt-a-Highway, says she feels sympathy for the Georgia DOT because of the headaches they now face over the issue. “Obviously personally I think the KKK has a history of hate and violence towards minority groups and people unlike themselves, so out the gate there’s a problem,” she says. “The ACLU feels what they are really debating is a constitutional issue, so it’s an emotionally charged situation.

“I can tell you from my experience over the years that there are lots of signs out there and people attending the cleanings can be a target for any reason,” she says. “The GDOT’s position that this can be a safety issue is really quite legitimate. Just from a safety standpoint alone, it’s inviting trouble.”

(PHOTOS:  A Look Inside the Modern Ku Klux Klan)

But just because the ACLU has decided to represent the Klan, that doesn’t mean there will be a court case. Seagraves said her organization is doing its due diligence before deciding which steps to take. Seagraves refuses to speculate about what a court case over Georgia’s Ad0pt-a-Highway debate would look like. But she does point to the examples of the Missouri case and a famous 1977 case in Skokie, Ill., in which an American Nazi group won the right to hold a public march, with the ACLU’s help. In both instances, Seagraves says, the cases were “very long, very drawn out, very ugly and very expensive.”

To be sure, all chapters of the Ku Klux Klan are listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center; none are regarded as “reformed”, as many have claimed to have become over the years. There are 13 KKK groups in the state of Georgia alone, according to the SPLC. State agencies, even though they may be forced to accommodate the Klan, do not consider the  group welcome. “We have a great county and a good infrastructure,”  Union County Commissioner Lamar Paris told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We don’t need a controversy from a group who is claiming to want to pick up our trash. We are fully capable of picking up our own trash.”

MORE: Should the KKK’s Founder Get His Picture on a License Plate?