The Georgia Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from the Georgia Department of Transportation on Tuesday that would have prevented a local Ku Klux Klan chapter from suing the state after the group was denied the right to participate in the state's highway cleanup program.
The court rejected the department's appeal of a lower court decision in favor of the group. The appeal was filed incorrectly, it said, leaving the justices "without jurisdiction" to prevent the suit from going forward.
In May 2012, the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan applied to participate in Georgia's "Adopt-A-Highway" program, according to CNN. The organization was seeking to pick up trash along a section of State Route 515. The transportation department denied the request for two reasons. The first was that the route is a controlled-access highway with a speed limit of 65 miles per hour; for the safety of both volunteers and drivers, the department said, this location could not be adopted.
The second reason is where things get interesting. In a June 2012 letter to member April Chambers, then–Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said:
The impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern. Impacts include safety of the travelling public, potential social unrest, driver distraction or interference with the flow of traffic. These potential impacts are such that were the application granted, the goal of the program, to allow civic minded organizations to participate in public service for the State of Georgia, would not be met.
The KKK, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sued the department. While the group understood the stretch it originally proposed to adopt was not available for safety reasons, it argued the denial of the application was also a violation of its free speech. As Debbie Seagraves, the then–executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, put it:
The fundamental right to free speech is not limited to only those we agree with or groups that are inoffensive. The government cannot pick or choose who is protected by the Constitution. There will always be speech and groups conveying hateful messages that are distasteful to some. That is why the First Amendment protects free speech for all.
In November 2014, a trial judge ruled in favor of the KKK, saying the group's application was "singled-out for scrutiny not given to other applicants" and that the second reason for denial was a violation of the group's freedom of speech. The state then opted to appeal this decision.
The suit will go forward, but this win by the Ku Klux Klan may be more symbolic than anything else: The state suspended the entire highway cleanup program in 2012. Still, it's a good day for the idea that all speech, no matter how disgusting it may be, should be protected.
This is not the first time a government body and the white supremacist group have clashed with regard to trash cleanup rights. In March 2001, the United States Supreme Court refused to review an appeal by the state of Missouri, which was looking to prevent a KKK chapter from participating in their Adopt-A-Highway program. While the group won the right to pick up trash along part of Interstate 55, it was ultimately kicked out of the program for failing to actually do so.