ATLANTA —The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Thursday against the state of Georgia on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan, saying the state violated the group’s right to free speech by denying its application to join a highway cleanup program.
“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,” said Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Georgia. “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.”
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The lawsuit was filed in Fulton County Superior Court and names the state and various state agencies and officials. It asks the court to force the state to issue an Adopt-a-Highway permit to the KKK; to issue a permanent injunction preventing the state from denying the KKK such a permit; and to declare that the state wrongfully denied the group’s application and violated due process.
The International Keystone Knights of the KKK in Union County applied in May to the state’s “Adopt-A-Highway” program, hoping to clean up along part of Route 515 in the Appalachian Mountains. The state program enlists civic groups, companies and other volunteers to pick up trash, and the groups are recognized with a sign along the road they adopt.
Transportation Department officials denied the group’s application in June after meeting with lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office and consulting with Gov. Nathan Deal. The agency said at the time that the program is aimed at “civic-minded organizations in good standing.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens said Thursday the state hadn’t seen the lawsuit.
“Promoting an organization with a history of inciting civil disturbance and social unrest would present a grave concern to the department. Issuing this permit would have the potential to negatively impact the quality of life, commerce and economic development of Union County and all of Georgia,” transportation officials said in a statement in June.
The statement went on to explain that motorists who drive past signs promoting the KKK or who see members picking up trash could be distracted — creating a safety issue — and that the section of highway the group wanted to adopt is ineligible because of its 55 mph speed limit.
Similar groups in other states have won legal battles after initially being turned down for highway cleanup programs.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 rejected Missouri’s attempt to turn down a controversial group’s application, saying membership in the program cannot be denied because of a group’s political beliefs. In Kentucky, the transportation department accepted a white-separatist group’s contract to participate in the state’s highway cleanup program, fearing an unsuccessful legal battle.