Cedar Grove Road in rural eastern Delaware has become an unlikely First Amendment battleground after state officials approved a neo-Nazi splinter group's application to "adopt" a 2-mile stretch of the road under the state Department of Transportation's litter-control program.
Although the wording has been tempered from "Nazi Party" to "Freedom Party," residents are still riled over a pair of Adopt-A-Highway signs recently erected on the road in Sussex County. But free-speech analysts say that the state transportation agency, known as DelDOT, and the members of the organization are well within their rights.
"Viewpoint discrimination is really not permitted under the First Amendment," said Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. The state of Delaware does not have to allow anyone at all to participate in the roadside adoption program, but since it is open to the public, officials "can't cherry-pick the groups" that get to participate, he said.
Edward McBride III, 24, initially filed an application for the DelDOT Adopt-A-Highway program in July under the name of the "National Socialist Freedom Movement Nazi Party." Citing concerns that the state could be seen as endorsing a hate group, DelDOT rejected that application and Mr. McBride's counteroffer for an abbreviated sign with the name "NSFM88 Nazi Party."
"The bottom line is that we did not deny an individual's request to collect litter on the roadside as part of the Adopt-A-Highway program," Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesman for DelDOT, told The Washington Times. "We denied the request to display 'Nazi Party' on a state-owned and maintained sign."
Similar cases have sprung up across the country, including a 2000 case in Missouri where the local Ku Klux Klan chapter adopted a portion of Interstate 55. The program upheld the group's legal right to participate, but public outcry and vandalism led the section of the highway to be renamed after civil rights heroine Rosa Parks.
Barry Morrison, the Philadelphia regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said that hate groups such as neo-Nazi parties are "very good at drawing attention to themselves and claiming to do one thing and not following through."
"When and if more attention is drawn to this group, the responsibility falls to others in the community and in the state to oppose what they stand for and speak out visibly and loudly" against their "message of hatred and bigotry," he said.
The sign has sparked sharply critical comment in the state. The Wilmington News Journal wrote in an editorial this week that "the Adopt-a-Highway program, meant as a source of civic pride, is now associated in this part of Delaware with repugnant admiration for one of the vilest moments in human history."
But, the editorial added, "Let the joke be on those who find it sport to fantasize about expelling racial and ethnic minorities from this nation based on ancestry alone. Under our laws, it may be legal to co-opt the term 'Freedom' for their perverted intentions. But Delawareans know better than the National Socialist Freedom Movement Nazi Party what this country really stands for."
DelDOT's Mr. Sundstrom said Mr. McBride's first request was denied on the grounds that it is commonly understood that the Nazi Party is an organization that advocates the denial of civil rights — a philosophy Mr. McBride "personally confirmed to our program manager," Mr. Sundstrom said.
DelDOT reserves the right to edit the names on Adopt-A-Highway signs. Mr. Sundstrom said that DelDOT twice offered Mr. McBride the opportunity for his full name to appear on the sign instead, which he declined.
A subsequent application was filed by Mr. McBride's wife, Katelyn McManus, requesting that the road be adopted by the "Freedom Party" was approved without incident.
"The only difference was it wasn't me handling it," Mr. McBride told the local Cape Gazette newspaper, which first reported on the controversy late last week. The Gazette account said Mr. McBride's splinter group includes about 45 local members and meets once or twice a month in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach.
DelDOT's Mr. Sundstrom said that Freedom Party was accepted for use on a state sign, as "the generic use of the term was deemed acceptable."
Mr. Haynes said that accepting the name of Freedom Party was a "prudent move" and a "wise thing to do to try to mitigate some of the potential for controversy and offense."
"This is a story about how the First Amendment sometimes protects speech that people find offensive," he said. "The Department of Transportation has done its best [and] worked to protect the rights of people, at the same time as trying not to offend citizens as much as possible."
Mr. McBride and Ms. McManus' request has been viewed by some as a publicity stunt. A DelDOT official tried to steer Mr. McBride away from participating in the program in an Aug. 25 letter that was released Friday.
"Of course, you remain free to exercise other opportunities to seek publicity for this entity and your litter-control activities, in ways that do not suggest that the state is endorsing this entity," Joseph Wright, DelDOT maintenance and operations director, wrote. "For example, you have ready access to social media on the Internet and other ways of publicizing your activity, without involving the use of the official Adopt-A-Highway signs."
Neither Mr. McBride, a 24-year-old resident of Lewes, Del., nor Ms. McManus returned phone calls or emails seeking comment. According to the local press accounts, the group believes in the supremacy of white Christians and that other races and religions should be forced to leave the country.
Jason Hiecke, the chief of state for the National Socialist Movement, emphasized that Mr. McBride, his wife and other members of the National Socialist Freedom Movement Nazi Party are former members of the larger national group and that his organization is not affiliated with the Delaware group.
Mr. Hiecke said that while he can understand the state's concern of being associated with the organization and agrees that the attempt to have Nazi Party written on the sign may have been a cry for attention, "anyone that wants to help clean up their community should have a right to."
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