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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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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