Sunday, July 15, 2001

Anti-mask laws are spreading

Area was once Ky. Klan hotbed

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        MOUNT WASHINGTON, Ky. — In the 1970s, when Bullitt County was still a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, Chester Porter's attempts to prosecute Klan members made him the target of white-hooded demonstrators.

        “It was a time to be cautious and be aware of your surroundings,” said the former county attorney, who received threats and saw a cross burned in a field across from his home.

        A generation later, the Klan has virtually disappeared in the county. And Mr. Porter has mixed feelings about the legal tactic that officials are now using to keep it that way: Local ordinances that forbid public demonstrators from wearing masks or hoods.

        “As a kid growing up, I learned early on that it's not good to be spanking copperheads,” Mr. Porter said. “It's better to be staying away from them. If they are silent, you be silent. That's my philosophy.”

        He's not the only one troubled. The American Civil Liberties Union says the laws, while well-intended, may infringe on the Klan's right to protest.

A signal: Go away
        The city council in Shepherdsville, the focal point of Klan activity in the 1970s, recently approved such an ordinance. A similar ordinance is being considered by the Mount Washington City Council.

        Barry Armstrong, a banker and Mount Washington councilman who suggested his town's proposed ordinance, said it's a signal that the Klan is unwelcome in the community. Violating the ordinance would carry a $100 fine, up to 50 days in jail, or both.

        “You can't stop them from marching, but you might be able to stop them if they have to uncover their faces,” Mr. Armstrong said.

        Mr. Armstrong, who has a bust of Abraham Lincoln in his office, 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 said he liked the ordinance. People have a right to protest, he said, but hiding behind a hood or mask is “a show of cowardice.”

        Bullitt County still deals with a reputation as Kentucky's Klan capital. But Mr. Porter said that even at its height in the 1970s, the Klan movement probably attracted no more than 20 members and a few dozen sympathizers who were from the county. The rest of the marchers who filled the streets, he said, came from out of town.

        The Rev. Travis Collins, pastor of First Baptist Church, said the ordinance could help dispel perceptions that have lingered long after the marches stopped.

        “Bullitt County has a reputation that we're not proud of when it comes to racism,” the Rev. Mr. Collins said. “I'm thrilled that our leaders are doing something to help erase that reputation.”

First Amendment principle
        But Jeff Vessels, director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said the city laws might infringe on free-speech rights, which the courts have decreed should extend to anonymous speech.

        “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,” he said.

        Mr. Vessels said the ACLU is keeping track of the recent anti-mask ordinances, but hasn't been contacted by anyone wanting to challenge them in court.

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

        Joe Roy, with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said communities shouldn't rely on anti-mask ordinances to keep out the Klan because the laws have been vulnerable to legal challenges.

Earlier laws killed
        The ACLU in Kentucky has successfully challenged such community laws before. Louisville's ordinance was struck down by a federal judge in response to an ACLU suit filed before a planned 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 Klan.

        Instead of trying to legislate against the Klan, communities should stand together against the Klan's message, Mr. Roy said.

        “What we suggest, and what has worked, is for the community to come together and demonstrate against the Klan somewhere else, other than ground zero, to show them that they are not welcome,” Mr. Roy said.

        In April, the Elizabethtown City Council hurriedly passed an anti-mask ordinance days before the Klan rallied on the courthouse steps.

        “We didn't need that kind of element circulating in the community without the knowledge of who they are,” said Mayor David Willmoth Jr.

        Mr. Porter has some anti-mask philosophical reservations about the measures. He said government shouldn't make obstacles for groups wanting to peacefully express their views, no matter how extreme.

        “I feel they have the right to march, even though I don't agree with their cause,” he said. “They have as much right as any other group, as long as they aren't violent.”
        The Associated Press/PATTI LONGMIRE Chester Porter, former Bullitt County attorney, stands in front of his former office building, where the Ku Klux Klan marched in the late 1970s in Shepherdsville, Ky.


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