This isn't the first time a local KKK chapter has wanted access to the Adopt a Highway program, getting their name on a spiffy little sign on the side of the road acknowledging their civic-mindedness, but the smarmy rhetoric is a bit nauseating:
“All we wanna do is adopt a highway,” said April Chambers, secretary of the North Georgia chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. “We're not doing it for publicity. We're doing it to keep the mountains beautiful. People throwing trash out on the side of the road ... that ain't right." [...]Sure, just a good ol' collection of people getting together to pick up litter and talk about how happy they are to be white. All that nasty stuff, the entire history of the name, the patently terrorist acts, that's all in the past. Stop judging us! That's so bigoted!
"We do not hate anyone,” said Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “The true Ku Klux Klan is an organization that is looking out for the interests of the white race. It is a fraternal organization, and we do good works.”
The Georgia Department of Transportation has rejected the group's application, citing public safety and other concerns, but past court decisions have tended to lean in the other direction (see pic, above). As always, the larger free speech argument is whether government nondiscrimination requires government to be nondiscriminatory towards discriminatory groups, which is very zen, but as sympathetic as I usually am to free speech arguments I'm not sure I see a large, existential problem in government rejecting government-backed promotion of obviously incendiary speech. And the name, Ku Klux Klan, is itself incendiary. It will be incendiary for the next 200 years, and there's not much Frank Ancona is going to be able to do about that.
Could a group called, say, Georgia Men for Pedophilia get access to a sign? A group called Atlanta Loves Hitler? What about a group whose official name was merely a series of blistering, top-notch swears? There would obviously seem to be a point where a name that was incendiary, intimidating, vulgar or exploitative on its face would be denied access to public programs simply because the negative public consequences of promoting it would outweigh the positive benefits of enrollment. The only question is where to draw the line, but the Klan, due to that whole history of race-based murders, intimidation and domestic terrorism, would seem to reasonably fit the category. Sorry, fellas, but that whole "having a long history of race-based terrorism" thing doesn't just go away because you say it should. Much like Nazi, I would argue that the name itself has been elevated to a status akin to vulgarity.
The same group of people can, if they were truly dedicated towards cleaning up litter, call themselves literally almost anything but the Ku Klux Klan and skirt the controversy. They're not, of course, because the advertisement value of that one little sign is more important to them.
Ah, you might say, but what one person may think of as controversial might not be controversial to anyone else! Should the word "Mormon" be prohibited from government signage, because some subset of people think of the group as nasty cultists? Heaven help us all if a Muslim group wants to clean up litter, incurring the wrath of terrified bigots everywhere!
I think the distinction, however, must be made between denying access to a controversial phrase or name (that is, the pure text), and denying access to a controversial group (that is, the people). The government interest in this case would seemingly apply almost entirely to the literal text involved. A group of virulent racists who called themselves Americans for Happy Puppies would be able to get approval for their road sign far more easily than the same group calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan, because the Ku Klux Klan as a name has been engraved in history as incendiary. The same would apply to a group called "Let's all Shit on Hitler"—regardless of the actual intention of the group, the vulgarity of the name would supersede any supposed free speech requirements for government to promote it via roadside sign.
Now, if Americans for Happy Puppies then went out and made a name for themselves as notorious domestic terrorists, thus strongly tainting that string of words in the public mind as well, the situation changes again, and you soon won't be able to put that on a government sign either. As more concrete example, you might have been able to name your little litter-control group al Qaeda 40 years ago without difficulty, but there's considerably less chance you would be able to do the same today.
This is a point people love to argue on, citing slippery slope arguments, gray areas and the like. All true enough. There are many, many aspects of law and policy that come down to individual judgments about individual circumstances. My own argument is that the very name Klan has commonplace public implications above and beyond the persons and groups currently seeking to use that name, and that those implications legitimately override any requirement that the government sponsor or promote that speech. Your mileage may vary.