Tuesday, June 12, 2012

News item: A Ku Klux Klan chapter in northern Georgia wants to adopt a highway

(Updated below.)

The story:
A Ku Klux Klan chapter wants to spruce up a stretch of roadway in northern Georgia, creating a legal quandary for transportation officials as they consider the white supremacy group’s “adopt a highway” application.

In 1997, the state of Missouri rejected a similar request from a Klan chapter, saying the group’s membership rules were racially discriminatory. But a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Klan and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

If Georgia denies the Klan’s new application, the group will consider legal action, said Harley Hanson, who is known by his formal title as the Exalted Cyclops of the Union County Klan.

“We’re not going to be deterred,” Hanson told Reuters.

Under adopt-a-highway programs in Georgia and many other states, groups volunteer to pick up trash and plant trees along the highway. Road signs are typically installed to recognize the organizations’ efforts.
Marion County, Oregon, location of state capital Salem, went through something similar over 7 years ago, during the first months that p3 was online, after the local chapter of American Nazi Party applied to become litter clean-up activists for Marion County. When roadsigns along the highway appeared, recognizing the ANP's beautification efforts, the signs were soon vandalized and that's when the litter hit the fan.

The Southern Policy Law Center characterizes the Klan as ”the most infamous - and oldest - of American hate group.” As a service to Peach Staters who don't enjoy the thought of state resources used to put a happy face on the Exalted Cyclops and his cohort, I reprint in full my proposed solution to the Oregon/ANP situation:
This week the commissioners and citizens of Marion County got one of those moments they probably could happily have gone without for a long time: The American Nazi Party joined the local adopt-a-road litter cleanup program, and the signs on that road went up. The public reaction was not a bit surprising to anyone, including the county commissioners themselves; the (Portland) Oregonian continues the story [Jan 2011 note: Unsurprisingly, the original OregonLive.com link is broken; the article by Ron Soble is repeated, apparently in full, at the bottom of this post at Portland Indy Media]:
Sometime early Friday afternoon, the sign closest to the Salem city limits on Sunnyview Road disappeared. Earlier in the week, someone damaged an identical sign about 3 miles down Sunnyview and county public works crews removed it.

The county signs -- among more than 100 in Marion County that mark volunteer efforts to clean up roadsides -- were particularly hard to see during the same week as the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Schoenberg said.

The county has gotten dozens of complaints about its decision to post the signs.

Sam Brentano, chairman of the Marion County commission, isn't surprised. "We just look stupid," he said. "But maybe we are."

He was against the decision and may ask fellow commissioners to look into ways of tightening applications for groups seeking to adopt a road, he said.

"Everyone has a right to free speech, but I don't have an obligation to promote that right for them," he said. "I'd rather face the consequences."

James Sears, the county's public works director, said he got the application from the American Nazi Party about six weeks ago and consulted the county attorney about posting it. The staff doesn't routinely verify applicants listed on the one-page forms and didn't in this case other than to seek legal advice, he said.

County officials based the decision to go ahead with the signs on court decisions that upheld the free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan to seek to put its name on a similar sign in Missouri.

The thing about defending free speech is, if it doesn't hurt at least a little, you're probably not doing it right. The test of whether speech is really free is always, alas, whether the speech that offends you most is protected.

So I have mixed feelings about this: If, indeed, the American Nazi Party operates in Oregon (information later in the article casts some doubt on that), it's a pretty sad thing. And seeing them get their names on public roadways at taxpayer expense is pretty unappetizing. Still, it's their right. And that means it's not good that someone -- prankster or genuinely offended community member -- vandalized the signs.

The solution to troubling free speech is not to invent more legal or illegal restrictions on it. Anyone who opposes the American Nazi Party should understand that. The solution is more free speech. With, perhaps, a little wit. So, pursuing one of my own favorite forms of protected speech -- the cranky letter to the editor -- I wrote the Oregonian:
To the Editor:

No matter how offensive the legal activities of a group like the American Nazi Party may strike any of us, the answer is not to shut down their speech, whether by denying them participation in the adopt-a-road program or vandalizing the signs with their organization's name.

The best solution is for the county commissioners to rename that stretch of highway the Simon Wiesenthal Parkway (or, if they prefer, the Rosa Parks Highway ). Put that sign up, put below it the sign announcing that the American Nazi Party keeps the ditches free of litter, and sit back to watch as free speech solves its own problem.
I think that a big sign advising Georgia motorists that the Union County Klan was picking up the trash from Medgar Evers Road should do the trick.

(Update: The state of Georgia denied the KKK's application to adopt a road.  My solution was still better.)

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