The northeastern Maryland town of Elkton must allow the Ku Klux Klan to march there despite fears that such a demonstration could provoke violence, a federal judge ruled in Baltimore yesterday.
After a brief hearing, U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg ordered the Cecil County town to grant the Klan a march permit. He said Elkton had mustered "insufficient evidence that the threat of violence is beyond reasonable control."
"Speech cannot be barred or hampered simply because the message is unpopular or offensive," the judge said, echoing a 1988 federal court ruling that allowed another Klan group to march through the Frederick County town of Thurmont.
No date was immediately set for the proposed, 40-minute march of 100 Klan members. Chester J. Doles, grand klaliff of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said he planned to march on a Saturday and keep the date secret until "the last possible moment."
"It's going to happen soon," he said.
Bernard L. James, president of the Cecil County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he would organize "a unity day celebration in one of the churches" at the same time as the march.
Mr. James said he expected no violence. But Elkton officials said in court papers that the town feared that Klan members and counter-demonstrators might clash. They estimated that 50 police officers would be needed to control the situation.
Elkton, a town of 9,000 with about 700 black residents, has a police force of only 21, but state police have pledged to provide whatever manpower is needed the day of the march.
The Klan has conducted recruiting drives in northeastern Maryland since late last year and rallied July 4 on the Ocean City boardwalk. It originally proposed to march through Elkton on April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The white supremacist group later changed the date to April 11, but Elkton's mayor and town commissioners voted unanimously in March to deny the permit.