WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for the Ku Klux Klan to "adopt" stretches of state highways, as it turned down appeals brought by Missouri and 28 other states.
All but two states have "adopt-a-highway" programs that encourage groups of volunteers to pick up litter and plant trees. To recognize their contributions, the states post official signs along the highway that identify the cleanup groups.
But state officials say they never anticipated that a highway could be adopted by a racist hate group.
Nonetheless, when Michael Cuffley, a local Klan leader, asked to join the program, a federal judge in St. Louis said the state could not refuse his request.
Under the 1st Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech, the state cannot exclude certain groups because of their racist views, a U.S. appellate court agreed. "The 1st Amendment protects everyone, even those with viewpoints as thoroughly obnoxious as those of the Klan, from viewpoint discrimination by the state," Judge Pasco Bowman wrote for that court last year.
Lawyers for Missouri appealed to the high court. They called it "bizarre" and "highly offensive" for the state to be forced to erect a sign that "essentially dedicates a portion of a public highway to the Klan." They noted that nine other states, including California, have turned down similar requests from the Klan.
In January, outgoing U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman, speaking for the Clinton administration, urged the high court to exclude the Klan on federal civil rights grounds.
But without comment, the justices refused Monday to hear the appeal in the case, Yarnell vs. Cuffley, 00-289.
Ironically, a ruling last week that was applauded by liberal groups may have dealt a setback to Missouri's appeal in the Klan case.
Although everyone agrees that private people have a free speech right to speak out on their own, it is not as clear that participants in public programs have the same wide-open free speech rights.
Last week, however, a divided court tipped the balance toward free speech. On a 5-4 vote, the court said that if the government funds a network of legal aid lawyers for the poor, it cannot bar them from challenging the government's restrictions on welfare benefits.
Because these publicly funded lawyers are not seen as government spokesmen, their views are protected by the 1st Amendment, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in Legal Services Corp. vs. Velazquez.
Liberal advocates praised this ruling and said it would make it hard for government officials to challenge "offensive" art in public museums.
In the Klan case, however, Missouri officials admitted that they were seeking to exclude the local group because of their offensive views. The state lost on the same free speech rationale that the high court adopted in the legal aid case.
Robert Herman, an attorney working with the ACLU in St. Louis, defended the Klan and said he was pleased to see the litigation end. "We think we secured an important right. The government cannot punish people for holding unpopular political opinions," he said.
Although Monday's decision is not binding nationally, it will make it harder for other states to turn away similar claims from the Klan.
A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation said his agency was disappointed. He noted, however, that the Klan had mostly won a right to pick up litter.
The court also acted Monday on three other 1st Amendment cases.
The justices agreed to decide whether Los Angeles can enforce a zoning ordinance that forbids more than one sexually oriented business to operate in the same building.
Beginning in the 1970s, cities won new power to use zoning laws to break up red-light districts. The high court said that cities were entitled to move against crime and blight that often came with a concentration of such businesses.
But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Los Angeles went too far and violated the free speech rights of owners of an adult bookstore in Hollywood. Although Alameda Books ran a video arcade in the same building, there was no evidence that it brought more crime to the area, the appeals court said.
The justices voted to hear the appeal brought by City Atty. James K. Hahn. The case, City of Los Angeles vs. Alameda Books, 00-799, will be heard in the fall.
Meanwhile, the court turned away a free speech challenge to a 1996 anti-terrorism law that makes it a crime for Americans to give money to certain foreign groups, even if the funds are designated for peaceful uses.
Some human rights activists said the government should not be allowed to "blacklist" certain groups and punish people for the innocent act of giving money. But the 9th Circuit Court upheld the law and said the government can seek to prevent aid going to terrorists. (Humanitarian Law Project vs. Ashcroft, 00-910)
The justices also turned down a free speech challenge brought on behalf of a high school valedictorian who wanted to encourage his classmates to "pattern our lives after Jesus." The school principal in Oroville, Calif., said the religious message was inappropriate.
By the time the case reached the federal courts, the student, Chris Niemeyer, had graduated, and the controversy was no longer a live one. For that reason, the justices were urged to turn down the appeal, and their decision to do so has no legal significance. (Niemeyer vs. Oroville Union District, 00-1074)