You think politics makes strange bedfellows? Try adopting a highway.
Hum the theme to The Odd Couple while you read this next sentence: The American Civil Liberties Union is defending a Ku Klux Klan group’s First Amendment rights.
The International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (acronym: IKKKKK – pronounce it however you like) applied in 2012 to participate in the Georgia Adopt-a-Highway Program, in which volunteers team up to remove litter from the side of the road. A group “adopts” a stretch of road, promising to regularly clean the rights-of-way.
THE GEORGIA Department of Transportation denied the Klan’s application, the Klan objected, lawyers got involved, and a couple weeks ago the case got kicked to the Georgia Supreme Court.
The major sticking point here seems to be the sign. Groups that adopt roads often get signs posted on their section of road that announce they’re the cleanup volunteers. I’m sure you’ve seen them.
The GDOT said in its rejection letter that “the impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern. Impacts include safety of the travelling public, potential social unrest, driver distraction or interference with the flow of traffic.” All are excellent points.
But the ACLU says denying the application infringes on the Klan’s right to free speech. You can’t turn the application down if you don’t like the sign.
Also, item No. 1 on the GDOT’s “Conditions for Participation” in the program says: “Any organization, business, individual, family, city, county, state or federal agency is welcome to apply for participation in the Georgia Adopt-A-Highway Program.”
The word “any” provides a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. On an adopted highway.
And there is a lot of trash to be picked up.
So let the KKK adopt a highway.
Now hear me out.
There’s no law I could find requiring the adoption-sponsor sign to be a certain size. I’m sure traffic signs and warning signs have to be a minimum size for safety reasons. But I didn’t see anything in the state Adopt-a-Highway guidelines where the GDOT promised motorists they would be able to read a naming sign while zipping down a road. The sizes of these signs vary from state to state.
SO MAKE THE Klan’s sign about the size of a matchbook cover, and make the words as big as the “In God We Trust” motto on a penny. If the signpost doesn’t have to be a certain size either, a toothpick ought to do the trick.
To borrow a phrase from comedian Bill Engvall: Heeeere’s your sign.
Now I know what you’re thinking: If you give ’em an itty-bitty sign they’ll probably take to the roadsides all decked out in Klan paraphernalia. Picking up trash while wearing an ankle-length robe and a pointed hood sounds impractical from a manual labor standpoint. But it could happen. Right?
Wrong. The GDOT has a dress code for volunteers. Assuming everyone’s dressed sensibly for outdoor work, according to the code, “no words, slogans or designs are allowed on any clothing or headwear.”
So if there’s no big sign that says “KKK,” and no folks wearing clothes that say “KKK,” shouldn’t that be, well, OKKK?
After all, Klan members apparently just want cleaner roads. They’re not sniffing around for free, state-funded publicity.
Missouri discovered a very clever method of addressing this issue. Many years ago, a Nazi group – ahem, I mean the Springfield Unit of the National Socialist Movement – volunteered to adopt a stretch of highway, and Missouri refused. The argument was snarled in court for years until the controversial group won on free-speech grounds.
So Missouri displayed some free speech of its own. In 2009 the state named the contested portion of highway after Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He fled Nazi Germany to America and became a prominent Jewish theologian and civil rights advocate.
In 2000, a Missouri chapter of the KKK wanted to adopt a portion of Interstate 55 near St. Louis. That got tied up legally for years, and the Klan won, again citing free speech. So the legislature said: OK, here’s your portion of road – the Rosa Parks Highway, named for the icon who helped ignite the black civil rights movement.
AND GOSH, WHO would’ve guessed? Klan members all of a sudden decided they didn’t want to clean up after all. None of them ever reported for work.
Should Georgia do that? Well, the road in question is a mile of Ga. Highway 515, already named the Zell Miller Mountain Parkway.
But there are an awful lot of pieces of road you can rename.
Anyway, the GDOT started the Adopt-a-Highway program to encourage civic-minded Georgians to keep our roadways cleaner. The program isn’t – and shouldn’t be – blindly obligated to provide no-questions-asked outdoor advertising to any participants.