Ku Klux Klan takes rally argument to high court

Tuesday, April 7, 1998

The Ku Klux Klan recently appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the city of Lansing, Mich. violated its free-speech rights by filing a lawsuit to stop a 1994 Klan rally.

The controversy began in July 1994, when the Klan obtained a permit to march at the state Capitol. However, city leaders sued in state court to prevent the Klan from marching. Citing incidents of violence at a Klan rally a few months earlier, city officials sought to move the rally to an alternative, more remote site that they claimed would be safer.

After a trial judge granted the injunction, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed in an August 1994 decision. Writing that “insulting and even outrageous speech must be tolerated in order to protect First Amendment freedoms,” the appeals court determined the injunction violated the Klan's free-speech rights. The rally, however, never took place.

The Klan then filed a counterclaim against city officials, claiming the city violated its civil rights by going to court to improperly silence the group's First Amendment rights.

However, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the Klan's argument in its April 1997 decision. The appeals court determined that the “direct cause of the constitutional violation” was the trial court's overbroad injunction, not the city's initial action in seeking the injunction.

The appeals court wrote: “a rule that transforms judicial error into a basis for tort liability by an adversely affected litigant would chill legitimate access to courts.”

Mark Granzatto, a Detroit lawyer affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the Klan in the case, disagreed with this reasoning in an interview with the First Amendment Center.

“In my estimation, that statement by the court of appeals is an utterly preposterous argument,” Granzatto said. “The appeals court has turned the First Amendment on its head. If there is any chilling effect that should come from this case, it is a chilling effect on government agencies that issue unconstitutional prior restraints on speech.

“The Michigan Court of Appeals did not understand the First Amendment in this case,” he said.

The city attorney for Lansing, Mich., was out of town and unavailable for comment.

The Klan filed its appeal last week to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The high court has until October to decide whether it will review the case.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.