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Archive for Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Kentucky law aims to unmask Klan

July 24, 2001

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— In the 1970s, when Bullitt County was still a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, Chester Porter's attempts to prosecute Klansmen were met with threats and a cross-burning outside his home.

"It was a time to be cautious and be aware of your surroundings," said the former county attorney.

Ku Klux Klan member Alan Schmidt waves a Ku Klux Klan flag during a
rally at the Hardin County Court House in Elizabethtown, Ky., in
this April 28, 2001, file photo. Since the rally in Elizabethtown,
some Kentucky communities have approved or are considering local
ordinances that forbid public demonstrators to wear masks or hoods
that conceal their faces.

Ku Klux Klan member Alan Schmidt waves a Ku Klux Klan flag during a rally at the Hardin County Court House in Elizabethtown, Ky., in this April 28, 2001, file photo. Since the rally in Elizabethtown, some Kentucky communities have approved or are considering local ordinances that forbid public demonstrators to wear masks or hoods that conceal their faces.

A generation later, Porter said he knows of no Klan activity in the county. And Porter, who is white, has mixed feelings about the legal tactic that officials are now using to keep it that way: local ordinances that forbid demonstrators from wearing masks or hoods.

Porter said government should not set up obstacles for groups wanting to peacefully express their views, no matter how extreme.

Besides, he said, "as a kid growing up, I learned early on that it's not good to be spanking copperheads. It's better to be staying away from them. If they are silent, you be silent. That's my philosophy."

He is not the only one troubled. The ACLU says the laws, while well-intended, may infringe on the Klan's free-speech rights.

The City Council in Shepherdsville, a focal point of Klan activity in the 1970s, recently approved such an ordinance. The Mount Washington City Council was to adopt a similar one Monday night.

In all, nearly 30 Kentucky cities or counties have such ordinances, some dating to the 1920s, according to the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.

"You can't stop them from marching, but you might be able to stop them if they have to uncover their faces," said Barry Armstrong, a banker and white Mount Washington councilman who suggested his town's proposed ordinance, which would carry a $100 fine, or up to 50 days in jail, or both.

No one has been prosecuted under any of the recent ordinances.

Armstrong said his proposal has been warmly received in a town not exactly known for racial diversity. Out of a population of 8,485, only 41 residents identified themselves in the latest census as black or part black.

From his auto repair shop about a block from City Hall, Jimmy Breeden, who is white, said he likes the ordinance. People have a right to protest, he said, but hiding behind a hood or mask is "a show of cowardice."

But Jeff Vessels, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said: "What is at stake here is a very important First Amendment principle of free speech, and it protects that speech regardless of how offensive people might find that speech."

Vessels said the ACLU is keeping track of the recent anti-mask ordinances but has not been contacted by anyone wanting to challenge them.

Such laws have been vulnerable. Louisville's ordinance was struck down by a federal judge in response to an ACLU lawsuit filed before a Klan rally in 1996. An anti-mask ordinance enacted in Goshen, Ind., in 1998 met a similar fate in federal court after being challenged by the KKK.

However, more than a decade ago, a Klansman arrested in Georgia for wearing his hood in public lost a bid to overturn the law in the state Supreme Court. The justices said the 1951 law did not violate free-speech rights and was a legitimate attempt to prevent violence and intimidation.

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