In Failure for Free Speech, MD Shuts Down Adopt-a-Road Program
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, March 30, 1999
BALTIMORE — By abolishing a popular “Adopt-a-Road” program rather than allow the Ku Klux Klan to participate, Anne Arundel County officials have failed the First Amendment, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said today.
Under the now-defunct program, groups were recognized in signposts along sections of the road in return for picking up roadside trash. Klan members had asked to join, saying they would want a sign to credit “The Invisible Empire.”
“From the start we have said that our client in this case was the First Amendment,” said Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland. “So we’re concerned when the government shuts down a useful and popular program just because it would have included some speech that was unpopular.”
“If, as is often said, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech,” she added, “then both free speech and the Adopt-a-Road program are victims today.”
Since petitioning the County not to restrict controversial groups’ participation in the Adopt-a-Road program, the ACLU has suggested the government maintain the program while ensuring counter-demonstrators the right to protest.
“So long as the program is open to everyone, the county police could have facilitated demonstrations designed to oppose unpopular organizations,” said Dwight Sullivan, the ACLU’s legal counsel on the case.
The ACLU also expressed concern that shutting down the program may set an unhealthy precedent for other community projects. Legally, controversial groups could target other programs, forcing the government to shut them down to prevent participation.
“As an African American man and a life-long resident of Anne Arundel County, I certainly recognize the public relations dilemma that unpopular groups present for local politicians, but this decision really gives the Klan a lot of power,” said ACLU board member Garland Nixon.
“What happens when the next unpopular group wants to post a team and wear shirts with its message on them? Are they going to close that program down too?”
Other civil rights leaders agreed, expressing concern that abolishing the entire program would give the Klan too much power. Robert H. Eades, Chair of the African American Unity Coalition, urged the County Executive to shine the light of day on the Klan by letting them pick up the trash and then focusing the government’s attention on more substantive racial issues.
Michael Brown, Chair of the Anne Arundel Black Political Forum, concurred. “One good thing about this whole Klan controversy is that it reminds us that racism is alive and well — including systemic racism manifested by the lack of blacks in local government. My fear is that if we sweep the Klan under the rug, it will take our focus off the systemic problem as well.”
Herbert Lindsey, President of the State NAACP, also early on acknowledged the constitutional necessity of letting the Klan participate if the group met the program criteria.
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