Defending the Klan - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Defending the Klan

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

Whether it's being involved in issues ranging from religious discrimination to same sex marriage to racial profiling, the American Civil Liberties Union, if asked, is there to answer the call.

But, perhaps no issue puts the organization in more of a quandary than the quagmire of rights defined under the First Amendment where men wearing the white hats are legally equal in personal freedom to men donning white hoods.

Nearly 15 years ago, even former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton conceded he was constitutionally powerless to defy the Ku Klu Klan's First Amendment rights to free speech.

"We will provide any individual or groups as long as they're orderly the right to come to this city. This is a free country and I can't break laws," the former mayor of Memphis said.

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Herenton's hopes for a peaceful event were dashed, not by the Klan, but by an unseen criminal element who saw an opportunity to create chaos. With a submitted city permit to allow a march or Klan rally late on Saturday, March 30, it's Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong who is hoping for an uneventful encounter with one of America's most notorious organizations.

"I want to say just by the sheer fact that they went through the steps to apply for a permit, that they have the intention of at least following the guidelines and legalities associated with that," Director Armstrong said.

But, while the city's police director is assigned by the city council to define and control the parameters of time and location of a Klan event, there is nothing he can do to restrict the vitriolic message the Klan is able to deliver under First Amendment protection.

While the right to vocal protest is assured by the Constitution, it becomes a double-edged sword when espoused hate groups such as the Klan or Neo Nazis use it as a legal weapon to advance their activities. With council talk of raising substantial dollar values on security deposits for the event, if not handled fairly it could lead to the city's actions coming under legal scrutiny from the likes of the ACLU.

"Those type of restrictions and requirements for bail or bonding and deposits are reasonably secure," said Bruce Kramer, Memphis ACLU General Counsel. "If they get to the point where they are onerous or in the situation where they don't have any reasonable relationship and they're used as a pretense to deny peoples' right to protest, then that is a problem that is there."

But, while the anxiety leading up to a possible Easter weekend Klan visit tests our sensibilities about personal freedoms and, when and if they can be restricted, Mark Potok of the famed Southern Poverty Law Center notes the nation's founding fathers were fully aware of a radical element in the country even as the ink dried on the First Amendment.

"I do think that the founding fathers had some real sense of it being better to air even acrimonious disputes publicly without fear of being sent to prison than suppress speech like that," Potok said. "I think even way back then we had some pretty remarkably radical points of view and those points of view were really reflected in public debate."

The city's permit department has not said if it will grant the KKK a permit to hold its rally, which is expected to attract at least 180 Klan supporters.

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