A trial is underway at the Georgia Supreme Court that will determine whether a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the state is allowed to participate in the Adopt-A-Highway litter cleanup program.
Arguments got underway on Monday over the state's attempt to block the International Keystone Knights branch of the white supremacist organization from sponsoring a stretch of road in northern Georgia. The case pits Georgia's ability to deny the KKK's claim and shield itself from a lawsuit by using sovereign immunity, a legal privilege that protects states and the federal government from some types of litigation, against the group's contention that its right to free speech is being violated.
The KKK chapter has applied to pick up trash on a one-mile section of road that goes through the Appalachian Mountains near Georgia's border with North Carolina. As part of a standard feature of the nationwide program, a sign featuring the organization's name would have been posted marking their adopted section, telling drivers who was in charge of keeping that stretch of roadway clean. According to the Washington Post, April Chambers and Harley Hanson, who submitted the application, had requested the sign say "IKK Realm of GA, Ku Klux Klan."
The application was rejected in 2012 by Georgia's Department of Transportation. The state agency claimed the 65-mph speed limit in the area exempted the stretch from the adoption program, but it also cited the group's "long-rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern." A few months later, the KKK chapter filed its lawsuit.
"You can't deny participation like having your name on a sign based on the content of that person's speech," Alan Begner, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "That's a core violation of the First Amendment."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) helped the KKK initiate the lawsuit. The legal advocacy organization has said that rejecting the group's application opens the door for the state to deny participation other groups like Black Lives Matter, journalists, or political lobbyists.
"It will be expanding the right of the state to engage in viewpoint discrimination," the ACLU told the Washington Post earlier this week. "That is, the state will be given a license to refuse participation of individuals and groups whose speech the government disagrees with."
Arguments will continue for several months as the state's top court tests Georgia's claim of sovereign immunity. Begner said his clients are prepared to re-submit their application to the Department of Transportation if they win, according to the Post.
"We're going to knock on the door," Begner said. "and say, 'We're ready for our signs and our vests and our trash bag."
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