What does the KKK's case against Georgia say about the First Amendment?

Understatement of the century: The KKK isn't exactly known for doing nice things.

The white supremacist hate group known as the Ku Klux Klan started in the mid 1800s and still exists today, albeit in much smaller and less active factions.

One of those factions, named the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is in Georgia.


And believe it or not ... the group wants to pick up trash as part of Georgia's adopt-a-highway program.

While that may sound like a good thing, consider the fact that as part of the program, all motorists driving along the Appalachian stretch of highway near the North Carolina border would have to drive past a sign that says "IKK Realm of GA, Ku Klux Klan."

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Which is why the state of Georgia saw the KKK's request and responded with a resounding, "Thanks but no thanks."

Now, the monthslong conflict over the hate group's right to free speech and Georgia's inclination to not hang a giant KKK ad on the highway is heading to the state's supreme court.

The interesting thing about this case is that, while free speech is at the heart of the issue, it's not really a free speech case.

The case largely boils down to the concept of "state sovereign immunity," which essentially says that no one can criminally prosecute the state without the state's consent.

To put it simply: The KKK wanted to participate in a state-sanctioned adopt-a-highway program which would involve having a sign promoting their hate group on government property. The state of Georgia declined that request, at which point the KKK decided to sue the state for infringing on its right to free speech. The state of Georgia then cited "state sovereign immunity" and said, "Nope, sorry, we can't be sued for that."

Maya Dillard Smith, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Georgia, told The Washington Post that the state's sovereign immunity claim is "disheartening."

Frankly, if the state of Georgia doesn't want to hang up a big sign with the KKK's name on it just to get a couple miles of highway cleaned, it's hard to disagree with that decision.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

The ACLU's argument, however, is that refusing to allow the KKK to participate in adopt-a-highway sets a dangerous precedent of regulating speech.

"It will be expanding the right of the state to engage in viewpoint discrimination," Smith said in a statement, explaining that if the state wins the case, it will be given "a license to refuse participation of individuals and groups whose speech the government disagrees with."

“Today it’s the KKK," Smith told the Post, "Tomorrow it’s journalists, lobbyists, religious evangelicals and even Black Lives Matter."

Of course, "slippery slope" arguments like that are a logical fallacy and can easily be argued in the other direction: Today it's a KKK sign, tomorrow it's a KKK billboard, a KKK recruitment center...

You get the picture.

Legal nuances aside, the case does raise a lot of difficult questions about our First Amendment right to free speech.

If it seems strange that the ACLU is defending a hate group's right to free speech, it's worth noting that the organization has a history of defending free speech for noted hate groups, including the American Nazi party and, on multiple other occasions, the KKK.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU in 2006. Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images.

And as tough as it may be to swallow, all of those parties do have the right to express their beliefs in America. That whole "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it" thing isn't just a patriotic Instagram quote graphic; it's actually one of the things that makes America great.

The right to speak freely is a fixture of democracy that we take pretty seriously.

The right to free speech doesn't mean the right to free speech without consequences. Problems arise when what's being said goes beyond being just "disagreeable."

The KKK's message has always been one of hate and racism, and their history is deeply saturated in violence, murder, and rape.

If you're someone whose ideals are entrenched in violence and hate, one of the consequences of you exercising your right to free speech might just be your government telling you to please shut the hell up.

Yes, you. Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images.

That's true for any entity. Free speech is often misinterpreted as the right to say or promote whatever you want wherever you want, but there are restrictions. For example, you can't yell "fire" in a movie theatre or promote violence against women on Facebook (though the latter is more recent and, disappointingly, only loosely enforced).

Things get more complicated when you're talking about governments, and the ACLU raises an interesting question about setting precedents that would allow the government to censor groups it simply doesn't agree with.

That's why laws about defining and litigating hate speech are still the subject of much debate and controversy here in America.

That's also why we have supreme courts. In this case, the Supreme Court of Georgia's job is to interpret the Constitution's assertion of "free speech."

Interpreting and defining just what the Constitution protects under the First Amendment is no easy task, especially because the parameters of "free speech" are constantly shifting, evolving, and growing on a case-by-case basis.

Just in the last couple of years, the United States Supreme Court has had to interpret and rule on free speech as it applies to animal cruelty, promoting illegal drug use, and abortion buffer zones.

Supreme Court justices are the final defenders and interpreters of our Constitution, and even they have to constantly rethink and reinterpret what the seemingly simple concept of "freedom of speech" actually means.

So when the Senate Judiciary Committee says it won't have any hearings to confirm a presidential appointment to the United States Supreme Court, they're not just playing politics. They're playing fast and loose with some of the most important moral and legal decisions this country has to make.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who's said he will reject any Supreme Court nomination made by President Barack Obama. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

We'll soon find out if the state of Georgia has the right to disallow a hate-group group from participating in the adopt-a-highway program that is open to any other citizen.

Whether you think censoring a hate group is the right thing to do or that to do so would set a dangerous precedent, this case shines a light on just how complicated free speech can be and how important cases like this are to pay attention to.

Freedom of speech is something many of us take for granted. But it can be challenged, expanded, or restricted as time goes on and culture changes. But it's an inalienable right that we'll have as long as there are people willing to defend it.

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