KKK has right to assemble on King Day

Madison, Wis. is a place where people from all around the country get together every summer to drink beer openly on Mifflin Street during a three-day binge that commemorates the riots leading up to the Aug. 24, 1979 bombing of the Army Math Research Center.
About a thousand people — mostly college kids — bump, sway and grate to music for three solid blocks. Stumbling and plodding, they chug luke-warm, yellow-colored elixir from plastic cups. Almost every house’s doors are open to the strangers who fill the street.
Sometimes Madison goes too far. Two years ago, this facade of hippie-love erupted into a riot. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson worries that the city nicknamed “Mad Town” could explode even more. Maybe that’s why he decided not to issue a permit allowing the Ku Klux Klan to march on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
In a way his fear is understandable. News footage of violent counter-protesters is not a positive image to portray a state that is supposed to be filled with cheese-loving Packers fans and white-tailed deer. Neither is a group of white-hooded hate mongers burning crosses on the steps of the Wisconsin Capitol. But, as bigoted as the Klan is, they still have the right to speak. It says so in the state’s constitution, article one, section four: “The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
Gov. Thompson has attempted to deny this right to Michael McQueeny and Kabes Zimmerman. The two Klan members from Mercer, Wis., want to voice the Klan’s opinion to what would probably be a very unreceptive audience. They did so in Indianapolis, Ind. on Jan. 9. Although they had received a permit to demonstrate in Indiana, and the protection of the Indianapolis Police Department, they will not be permitted to demonstrate in Wisconsin. Gov. Thompson claimed to have denied the permit to avoid the violence that may arise between counter-protesters and the Klan.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against Gov. Thompson’s denial of the permit on Dec. 30, 1998. In court papers, the ACLU said that the governor’s refusal to grant the permit violates the group’s constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
“Just as civil rights protesters engaging in free speech deserved the protection of the law when threatened by hostile crowds in the 1960s, so do other unpopular groups,” said Chris Ahumuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. He also said that, even though it is offensive to many, the Klan’s rally touches on issues of public concern. Courts have repeatedly ruled that demonstrators can not be denied a permit because of possible violence by counter-protesters. “The state Capitol is a traditional public forum.”
Daniel Farver, an associate dean of the Law School at the University, agreed that the ACLU has a good case. “You must have a strong reason to expect violence,” he said. “If they do, they still have to defend the marchers unless it appears that it would be impossible to do so.”
In Indianapolis, the police accepted this “dubious task” of ensuring that the rally ran smoothly to protect the KKK’s right to free speech regardless of personal feelings. Indiana followed a precedent set by the Illinois Supreme Court.
On June 14, 1977, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that members of the National Socialist Party did indeed have the right to march through Skokie, Ill., a predominantly Jewish town, to promote their views. They had the right to wear and display the swastika and distribute pamphlets inciting or promoting hatred against Jews or persons of any faith, ancestry or race. This display of hatred was a poke in the eye to the Jews living in Skokie, a direct insult aimed at bringing out the hate in them, too. Yet, the right of the Nazis to insult another group of human beings is protected by the Constitution.
McQueeney’s message is an attack on anyone with compassion for people different than themselves. He said in an e-mail to the Indianapolis Recorder, “The hour grows late across America and the world. Homosexuality, drugs and race mixing run rampant in the streets.”
Although what McQueeney says is not a popular message, it could be a good thing for a couple of people to say on the steps of the Capitol building in Wisconsin. Similar to the politically incorrect demonstrations of Fred Phelps, the reverend who actively protests homosexuality, the actions of the KKK could be a catalyst to public debate and an eye-opener to those who think racism is on its way out.
When Phelps’s family of about ten anti-homosexual protesters visited Minneapolis, they had nothing to preach but intolerance. “God hates fags” read one of their signs held next to an upside-down American flag carried by Phelps’s 13-year-old grandson, Joshua Phelps-Roper. Two middle-aged, somewhat portly women clutched signs emblazoned with the black on orange image of men partaking in coitus … doggie style. One lone sign said “AIDS CURES FAGS.” The protesters were met by opposing groups of protesters that outnumbered them thirty-to-one.
The Phelps crew stood in front of churches on a sunny summer day making a point. They tried to use religion as a weapon to attack homosexuality. They were trying to gain acceptance of their opinions and inform homosexuals that they will go to hell. When Phelps-Roper said “I’m here to make sure these people don’t go to heaven,” he was expecting acceptance from the Christian community. Yet the institution they expected to accept them, the church, did not.
For weeks following the anti-gay protest, letters to the editor of Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers frequently attacked Phelps and the protesters while defending Christianity. Some lines written by Kevin Mlodzik, a University senior at the time, typified the letters. “Jesus Christ gave us two commandments; love God and love each other … hatred and slander are not part of God’s plan,” he wrote.
This defense of Christianity was what public debate is all about. Denying the Ku Klux Klan the right to rally on the steps of the Capitol in Madison, Wis., would be denying the public a chance for open debate. Moreover, this debate will take place in a medium which is becoming more and more novel during the computer age: face to face. They will be a voice of people who post Internet hate sites. They will show the world that there is a face behind the disgusting messages of hate. They will be visible. They will be flesh. They will stand white-hooded in front of the Capitol and be strongly counter-protested. And they will be exercising their right to peacefully assemble that is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America.
Sean McCoy is staff photographer for the Daily and a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]