Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Charges spark KKK probe

Councilman asks if leader's arrest in Ky. can bar cross permit

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If racist and hateful language isn't enough to deny the Ku Klux Klan a permit on Fountain Square, Cincinnati officials want to know if the arrest of its leader on charges of felony wanton endangerment, criminal mischief and terroristic threatening is enough.

        The Rev. Jeffery Berry, the Klan's National Imperial Wizard who applied for a permit to erect a Christmas cross in the square, is scheduled to appear Thursday in a Kentucky district court.

        He is accused of ramming his van into a car being driven by a black man.

        But the Rev. Mr. Berry said he is not guilty and that the charges have nothing to do with the Klan's annual Fountain Square display. “Why should it have an effect?” he told the Enquirer in a phone interview from his Indiana home. “I thought a person was innocent until proven guilty. I wasn't even the one driving the van. As far as witnesses go, there aren't any.”

        But Councilman Todd Portune said he wants city lawyers to examine the incident to see if there is a way they can bar the Klan as a terrorist organization.

        City Council two weeks ago asked whether there was any way the Klan's permit could be rejected because members incited “fighting words” during a rally last January.

        But lawyers said there was no legal way to deny a permit and a review of videotape from the rally — during which Klan members shouted slurs and held a mock lynching — is not actionable.

        They also said enforcement of a city ordinance that prohibits masks or hoods, such as those worn by the white supremacists, would be unconstitutional.

        The Rev. Mr. Berry was arrested on Aug. 12 after a Klan rally in Hazard, Ky. Following the rally, police reported he was in a van with four other Klan members when they got into a verbal dispute with the driver of another car. After stopping at a gas station, where the altercation intensified, police reported the van followed the car and attempted to run it off the road.

        The Rev. Mr. Berry claims that he called 911 on his cell phone after the driver of the other car fired shots at the van and tried to run it off the road.

        But even if he is found guilty, the Rev. Mr. Berry said it should have no bearing on his permit. “Why should it?” he said. “If a person is found guilty, is the city going to stop them from building a home, building a church?”

        The executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, Cecil Thomas, said the Klan's behavior isn't protected by First Amendment right of free speech or under city ordinances. After losing several cases against the Klan in the 1990s, Mr. Thomas said, the city is unwilling to test a 1995 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling defining fighting words.


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