ATLANTA A Georgia appeals court heard arguments
on Thursday but did not issue an immediate ruling in a Ku Klux
Klan chapter's lawsuit against the state for refusing the white
supremacist group's application to "adopt" a stretch of highway.
The KKK chapter, backed by the American Civil Liberties
Union, sued Georgia in 2012 after it refused to let it join the
state's adopt-a-highway program, which involves volunteers
picking up trash and planting trees along designated sections of
roadway. Logos of participating groups appear on signs along the
Georgia officials had told the International Keystone
Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Inc that erecting a sign with its
name could lead to social unrest and distract drivers.
The right to control the content of road signs is
"government speech" which is not covered by the First Amendment,
Brittany Bolton, an attorney for the state, told the appellate
judges on Thursday.
Motorists viewing a road sign with a Klan logo "would have
no doubt about who the speaker is and that is the state," Bolton
The appeals court is hearing the case at a time of
soul-searching across the U.S. South about race relations.
Lawmakers in neighboring South Carolina voted on Thursday to
remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds,
a longstanding demand of those who see it as a racist symbol.
The issue was resurrected after the massacre of nine African
Americans at a Charleston church. The white man charged with the
murders had photographed himself posing with the flag on a
website featuring a racist diatribe.
Bolton compared the Klan case to a recent U.S. Supreme Court
ruling that Texas has the right to reject a proposed specialty
vehicle license plate displaying the Confederate battle flag.
But Alan Begner, attorney for the Klan, argued that
Georgia's constitution has stronger free-speech protections than
the U.S. Constitution.
Begner also rejected Georgia's claim that the Klan case
should be dismissed because the state is protected by sovereign
immunity, which bars governments from lawsuits on certain
issues. Sovereign immunity does not apply to constitutional
issues like free speech, Begner said.
A county judge last year refused a motion to dismiss the
lawsuit and the state appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
In 1997, Missouri rejected a similar request from a Klan
chapter on the grounds that the group's membership rules
discriminated against non-whites.
A federal appeals court ruled that requiring such a group to
alter its membership requirements to qualify for the
adopt-a-highway program would "censor its message and inhibit
its constitutionally protected conduct."