Ku Klux Klan Group Rejected at High Court on Hoods

Bloomberg/December 6, 2004

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a Ku Klux Klan group's free-speech challenge to a New York City law that bars public gatherings by people wearing hoods and masks.

The white-separatist Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and founder Jeffrey Berry argued that some members need to conceal themselves at marches to protect against retaliation and harassment.

The high court, which rejected the appeal as part of a list of orders released today in Washington, left intact a decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court said in January that the anti-mask law is a valid measure to prevent gatherings from turning violent.

In its appeal, the American Knights pointed to past cases where the high court protected anonymous speech. In 1958, for example, the court said the state of Alabama couldn't compel the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to reveal its membership lists.

"Protecting the identity of individuals engaged in free speech activities from reprisals by those who disagree with their message lies at the heart of the anonymous speech doctrine,'' the American Knights said in the appeal.

New York City urged the justices not to get involved, saying the 2nd Circuit reached the right conclusion. The city York said the American Knights may distribute literature anonymously and hold demonstrations as long as members don't cover their faces.

1845 Law

"New York's compelling interests in effective law enforcement and insuring public safety outweigh any burdens on petitioners' free speech,'' New York said.

Seventeen members of the American Knights held a rally in New York in 1999 without masks.

New York has had a version of its anti-mask law since 1845, when the state legislature passed "an Act to prevent persons appearing disguised and armed.'' The current version of the law exempts people attending "a masquerade party or like entertainment.''

The court issued the order as it heard arguments in two cases without Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has been working from home since announcing Oct. 25 that he is being treated for thyroid cancer.

The case is Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Kelly, 04-223.

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