KKK continues fight to put name on Missouri roads, radio

Thursday, September 30, 1999

Legal and political obstacles continue to stymie a Missouri faction of the Ku Klux Klan that is seeking to get its name onto state highway beautification signs and broadcast over the St. Louis airwaves.

For several years, the Klan's Missouri Realm has been locked in a couple of legal battles: first, with the University of Missouri-St. Louis over its efforts to purchase ads on the campus radio station and second, with the state Transportation Department over the Klan's participation in the highway program.

Last week, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the radio case. The Klan lost in its first round last December after a lower court found that KWMU had a right to control its programming and sponsorships.

Also last week, state highway officials said they would ask a federal judge to delay an order to allow the Klan to participate in the highway beautification program. The highway officials argue that the state risks losing federal transportation dollars if it allows the Klan to participate.

Transportation officials said they had been prepared to issue a statement on Sept. 23 that they would comply with the federal judge's order that the Klan be allowed to participate. But a letter from U.S. Department of Transportation officials said that allowing the Klan to participate in Missouri's Adopt-A-Highway program would violate federal anti-discrimination law because the organization's membership excludes people on the basis of race, color and national origin.

State transportation officials say they could lose significant federal funding. About $600 million of the state's $1.5 billion transportation budget comes from the federal government.

But Bob Herman, a St. Louis attorney representing the Klan in the two cases, said the court already had dismissed the federal-fund issue as unfounded.

“The highway department would be following a federal court order, so how could they be punished?” asked Herman in an interview with the First Amendment Center. “This hypothesis that they might suffer damages for following a court order is not rational.”

Officials with the Missouri Transportation Department did not return calls.

The Klan first applied in 1994 for a permit to adopt a half-mile stretch of Interstate 55 between Utah and Gasconade streets in St. Louis. In exchange for picking up trash along that portion of highway, Klan members would get a sign posted saying, “This portion of the highway is adopted Ku Klux Klan, Realm of Missouri.”

Highway officials initially refused to accept the Klan's application, claiming the organization was more interested in publicity and recruitment than in picking up trash. But in June 1996 a federal magistrate said the Klan had a First Amendment right to take part in the program.

An appeals court later overturned that decision.

Last April 13, U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh ruled that the Klan has a constitutionally protected right to pick up litter along highways and to have a sign bearing its name posted beside on a road outside St. Louis. The judge noted that the state froze the program within city limits because of safety concerns.

But the Klan hasn't been successful in court with regard to radio ads.

At a hearing in August 1998, University of Missouri-St.Louis Chancellor Blanche Touhill testified that the school could lose millions of dollars in gifts and student tuition if KWMU was required to air the 15-second promotional announcements about the KKK.

In its lawsuit filed against KWMU, the Klan called itself a social action and advocacy group. As an underwriter, it would have had KWMU identify it as “a White Christian organization, standing up for the rights and values of White Christian America since 1865.”

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Mummert wrote last December that KWMU is not a public forum and is under no obligation to broadcast the KKK's paid message.

Herman contends that even if the station works as a nonpublic forum, it is obligated as a government-owned entity to avoid viewpoint restrictions. He notes that the station has sold 15-second spots to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Jewish Congress.

“They've had a spot that said promote racial understanding and harmony,” he said. “That's a viewpoint. But it's not within the power of the government, consistent with the First Amendment, to restrict viewpoints opposed to that.”