How far is too far when it comes to self expression? The testing and defining of the boundaries of our First Amendment rights have long been a common theme in American law.
A current example of this delineation of free speech rights is taking place in Georgia, where the state’s Supreme Court is weighing whether the state can deny members of the KKK the right to participate in the “Adopt-a-Highway” program.
According to the Washington Post, the case stems from a dispute in 2012 when KKK members April Chambers and Harley Hanson submitted an application to the state’s Department of Transportation to claim a one-mile stretch of highway near the North Carolina border for care-taking under the “Adopt-a-Highway” road clean-up program. Per the article, the members’ application was denied because they wanted the signage posted by the stretch of highway to credit them with clean-up of the road to read “KKK Realm of GA, Klu Klux Klan.” The group has since been in a legal battle with the state over the matter.
While this situation might not seem to bear any significance for anyone outside of Georgia, it is still important because of how it fits into the overall, long-term shaping of First Amendment law in America. While this case is currently being heard on a state level, there is always the chance that the KKK could appeal to the federal Supreme Court if it loses. Regardless of the level on which this case is decided, it remains important because its verdict will add further legal definition as to the breadths of our free speech protections. There have been many cases that have contributed to shaping the legal boundaries regarding obscene speech, but what about the rights of a group that is considered obscene in many social circles to participate in a legal, non-disruptive public service project?
I’m no legal expert by any means, but I think that the KKK should be allowed to “Adopt-a-Highway” and help clean up the road in Georgia. While the group is undoubtedly a hate organization in essence, they aren’t attempting to spread their message in this situation or even demonstrate themselves in public. In fact, the expression in this case, cleaning up a stretch of highway, contributes to the public good. Even though the KKK is rightly viewed negatively by a majority of the public, they still have just as much of a right to non-disruptive self-expression as everyone else, and should have as fair of a chance as any other group to adopt a highway.
You can draw parallels from this situation to the issues we sometimes see arise with religious demonstrators on our Plaza on campus. Many of the proselytizers that come to campus are viewed negatively by a large part of the student body. In some cases, the reputation is well-earned because the speaker has approached students in a manner that is disruptive or has shouted obscene things at students, but many times the proselytizers express themselves in a peaceful way, and their negative reputation is earned through association with the obscene ones. Regardless, our community continues to protect the rights of these advocates to express themselves on our Plaza, given that their expression is not disruptive.
The situation with the KKK in Georgia should be treated in the same way. While I am certainly not supportive of the KKK or the proselytizers that come to campus, I believe that the First Amendment protects the expression of all organizations, even if the group is socially unpopular. Given that the expression is not obscene or disruptive, it isn’t fair to deny a group’s right to free speech based on their beliefs or associations alone. Equal protection is deserved under the law.
Collegian Senior Columnist Sean Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @seanskenn.