Thursday, July 12, 2012

The ACLU and the KKK

The Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is backing the Ku Klux Klan. The issue at hand is participation in the State's Adopt-A-Highway program, in which community groups volunteer to clear litter and debris from sections of roadway. Groups that do so get to have a sign erected on that roadway, acknowledging the civic contribution of the group.

The KKK's application was denied on the grounds that  the posted sign will be offensive to many. In words that accompanied the decision: “the impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern.”

Not merely a "history of civil disturbance." The KKK has a chilling legacy of hate, violence and oppression. I can imagine the effect of the apparent sanction of this group that their participation would represent. It will generate fear, confusion, anger and outrage among many, especially among Blacks, whose exclusion from citizenship in the south was enforced by the terrorism of the KKK. And, beyond being merely offended, I imagine there will be those who will experience a sense of terror, feeling themselves suddenly in Klan county, and vulnerable to all the horrors that the white sheets represent.

And yet, as pointed out by the head of the Georgia State ACLU that has decided to defend the KKK, it is a violation of their constitutional right for them to be denied participation because they hold unpopular ideas that others may find offensive. Freedom of expression is a constitutional right, and it cannot be denied because people hold ideas that are wrong, stupid or unpopular. By extension, no group should be prohibited from participating in a civic activity based on its beliefs alone, however offensive.

By and large, I support the ACLU. I admire that it's an organization that stands of principles, regardless of the political implications. As the ACLU head stated in the radio interview I heard, the staff of the ACLU is pretty leftist; they don't share the views of the KKK at all. But they understand the importance of the principle involved. I do too. And so, painful as it is, I side with them. Yes, let the Klan itself go about in public, putting forward "good works" as the face of its racist philosophies. As the ACLU rep said, it's really only unpopular speech that needs the protection of the 1st amendment.

I recall how transparant the politics was in 2000 when the US Supreme Court was deciding the outcome of the Presidential election. Then, you had the conservative Republican party, champion of States Rights, and historically against "activist courts", calling for the Supreme Court to stop the recount of ballots that the Florida courts had ordered. While on the other side, the Democrats, who are traditionally supportive of Federal intervention in state matters, and pro activism by the courts, were insisting that the Supreme Court stay out of the matter. It was such blatant hypocrisy, on all sides, that none of the parties earned respect by it.

Yes, the integrity of the ACLU, which supports the Bill of Rights, for anyone, anywhere and anytime, is impressive. And necessary. Ultimately, I don't think it's effective only to uphold principles when they play out in ones favor. It's hard though, this supporting of principles that, in turn, permit the sharing and spreading of false doctrines, racist philosophies, and hate. But is there really a better way?


  1. This sort of thing has happened before. In 1977 (I had to look the date up, but I remember this one from the news), there was National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, where the ACLU defended the rights of American neoNazis to march through an area inhabited by lots of Holocaust survivors.

  2. Oh come on, the States are populated by racist anti-semitic gun wielding drug dealing human trafficking vile criminals...& that's just the ACLU...The KKK should all be in jail or hung up by their fingernails to rot...Do the polygamist cults with their one ugly guy & 10 pregnant child brides get a sign too? How about the terrorists who are destroying our planet? Do they get a sign? When someone is in a bar & says racist things they get kicked out...(The Crown & Dragon by the way)...Freedom of speech means you have a chance to say your piece...But that doesn't mean you don't get thrown out of the bar...

  3. Yes, I remember that one too, Lucie. It drew a lot more attention than this current case. I think the ACLU won that one. But did they ever catch Hell for it. Like the lawyer who defends the child molester.

    Sari, I feel your outrage. But I feel compelled to look beyond the outrage to the principles involved. To answer your question, Yes! They all get signs! If the government – which is supposed to represent us ALL, has a program that is open to all groups, it can't decide to prohibit a particular group because some people don't like what it stands for. WHY? Because of the decades and centuries when Blacks and Women and Jews and Gays and Athiests and Mormons and What-Have-You were prohibited from sharing a legitimate role in community because what THEY represented offended the status quo. And one of the key things that has brought us out of this state of legislated morality (slowly, gradually, inch-by-inch; often 1-step-forward-2-steps-back) is that people recognize and are willing to adhere to a principle, even when it hurts them in a particular instance. This is not about supporting the Klan, or ugly polygamists, or terrorists. It's about supporting the principle of Free Speech and Expression, even for those who happen to be wrong – because, help us all when those in power become the sole arbiters of what's right and what's wrong!
    Oh, one other thing. We're talking about government action here, which is key. Individuals, bars, homeowners, private clubs, private schools, churches, etc. we all get to practice this sort of discrimination. I'm allowed to say: no one comes to my birthday party unless they wear smelly, green socks and agree that the Flintstones was the greatest tv show of all time!
    Having said that, let me mention that what I'm learning of Buddhist philosophy presents a totally different approach to questions like this. But more on that later…maybe the next post.

  4. In Canada, advocating genocide[14] or inciting hatred[15] against any 'identifiable group' is an indictable offence under the Criminal Code of Canada with maximum prison terms of two to fourteen years. An 'identifiable group' is defined as 'any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.' It makes exceptions for cases of statements of truth, and subjects of public debate and religious doctrine. The landmark judicial decision on the constitutionality of this law was R. v. Keegstra (1990).
    Unlike the United States, Canada does have laws concerning hate speech...In the U.S., however, defamation is still considered unlawful, even with free speech laws...
    Since we are in Canada & we are both Canadians, our laws protect us better when it comes to hate speech...But I consider the KKK to include the exception to free speech in the form of defamation, which holds in the U.S. ...

    1. Yes, this legal angle is legitimate. If a legislative body passes laws like those you cite, then particular groups can be prosecuted for violating those laws. My personal belief is that such laws are legitimate - to a point. (For example, I think that the laws making it illegal to deny the Holocaust are absurd. Of course it's ridiculous to deny the Holocaust, and any thinking person can figure this out. But should it be a CRIME to be ignorant!?)
      But this is an entirely different case. Here, we're talking about a government program that is supposed to be available to any civic minded group that wishes to serve the community. And this particular group is being denied participation because its beliefs are deemed potentially offensive. That troubles me - and NOT because of any legitimacy of the KKK's message. It bothers me because that same type of action can and has been used to silence or exclude Pro-Choice groups (because their advocacy of "child murder" is offensive), Civil Rights groups (because their advocacy of "race-mixing" is offensive), and Communist/Socialist groups (because anything "Commie" is automatically un-American and offensive), etc.
      Yes, Free Speech means that even the idiots and assholes get to have their say, not just those the government thinks have something legitimate to say.

  5. I'm Canadian AND American by the way. I get to enjoy the best (and worst) of BOTH countries ;-)

  6. I don't think one should bundle ethical decisions...One needs to address issues one by one...Formulaic "one thing follows another" thinking is faulty...Hate groups are an entity alone that need to be addressed...It is an oversimplification to call this an issue of free speech...Canadians have very different laws & thinking concerning this...I did not know you were also American...That explains your position quite clearly...I suggest you learn more about the country you live in...We are far more protective of our vulnerables...Which is why Americans have historically fled to Canada when being hurt ...

    1. That's an excellent point, about bundling and formulas, Sari. It suggests the Buddhist approach I hinted at, which represents a very different approach than the logic-driven, formulaic approach. But unfortunately, the law IS driven by formula, logic and precedent. Legally, cases Do relate to one another, and must pass the test of precedent.
      I don't think my being born American, and you Canadian, are key factors here.
      When you look at similar cases the ACLU has involved itself in, they regularly face the outraged opinion of many Americans (as in Skokie, which lspieler refered to. And on the other hand, I know that plenty of Canadians see the painful legitimacy of the ACLU position.
      I guess we aren't going to agree on this one, Sari. At least neither of us will face legal sanction because of that!
      And THANKS SO MUCH for this lively and thought-provoking debate. I LOVE it!

  7. Oh & the holocaust denying laws are about those who know & choose to deny, not about ignorance...

    In Legal terms it's called a Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy...Meaning, it is a fallacy to argue that one thing follows after another...
    I think you are a total moron for arguing in favour of a highway sign that advertises for the Ku Klux Klan...I think your head is up your as-...I am mad at you for supporting this idea & will continue to forever think you are an idiot if you maintain this position...
    So I will wait until you change your mind...Until such time I hope people around you deny you chocolate chip cookies until such time as you see reason...

  9. As usual, you write a compelling blog on a complex subject and offer a unique lense on the issue. Thank-you.

    Not too make lite of the issues, but perhaps we can sponsor a sign at the entry to the KKK highway that encourages people to litter. Then the KKK is on the hook for the clean up costs, they go bankrupt and hey presto, we win. In a very Canadian and non-confrontational bordering on apologetic way.

    As long as we have Atawapiskat's amongst us, we can't really lay any claim to moral superiority over the US. State controlled and directed discrimination against a group seems to me worse than State sanctioned terrorism. For the record I don't support either.

  10. A Brilliant idea, Toby! And actually, a perfect place for humor. After all, the ideas and the posturing of such groups are perfect targets for ridicule.
    I had a similar thought about forming a group whose purpose was simply to debunk and mock the Klan, and then to adopt a neighboring stretch of highway.
    Either way, I truly believe that, in the long run, if not always the short, courage and confrontation will trump fear and repression.