'Infringement on free speech': KKK Adopt-A-Highway lawsuit goes to trial

© Heather O'Donovan Owenby
The free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan were violated when the Georgia Department of Transportation denied the white supremacist group's request to participate in a highway cleanup program, the state’s highest court has ruled.

“A denial of an application to the [Adopt-A-Highway program] for public concern related to a group’s history of civil disturbance represents an unconstitutional infringement on an applicant’s right to free speech,” the court ruled Tuesday.

The verdict follows a legal battle that began in 2012 in Union County when two members of the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan applied to take part in the county-administered Adopt-A-Highway program.

Reviewing their applications, Union County informed the applicants that their candidacies to remove trash along Georgia 515 highway should be handled directly by the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT).

The DOT, however, denied their application, citing the organization’s “potential for social unrest,” stemming from the group's “long-rooted history of civil disturbance.”

Upon receiving DOT rejection, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation sued the DOT on the KKK’s behalf, arguing that denying the permit violated the group’s constitutional right to free speech.

In their defense, the Department of Transportation argued that the Klan cannot bring the issue to court because of “sovereign immunity,” which protects the state agencies from being sued.

The Fulton County Superior Court ruled in the KKK's favor in November 2014, rejecting the DOT argument of the doctrine of sovereign immunity, finding that the supremacists' case to be different because of the state’s "alleged constitutional wrong."

DOT then filed an appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which later ruled that it lacks jurisdiction in cases involving the construction of the state. The case was then transferred to the Georgia Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, in a unanimous opinion, the state high court ruled against the Department of Transportation’s argument, saying the DOT failed to follow correct procedure in filing its appeal. The case will now go to trial at Fulton County Supreme Court.

Georgia’s Adopt-A-Highway program enlists volunteers to help remove litter from roadsides of the state highways. Volunteers accepted into the program agree to clean one-mile stretch of the highway at least four times a year over a two-year period. In return, the state agrees to put up a sign bearing the party’s name on the highway.