A question of principle

September 13, 1993

Last May, the Texas Civil Liberties Union asked Galveston lawyer Anthony Griffin if he would defend a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon's right to free speech. Mr. Griffin said "no problem." But there was one small problem: Neither the Texas Civil Liberties Union, nor the prospective client, Michael Lowe, grand dragon of the Knights of the KKK Realm of Texas in Waco, realized that Mr. Griffin is black -- and also general counsel of the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches.

Mr. Griffin says there's no contradiction in his defending Mr. Lowe's right to keep the Klan's membership list, financial records and other documents from the Texas attorney general. "I don't like the Klan," he said. "But if I don't stand up and defend the Klan's right to free speech, my right to free speech will be gone."

Standing on principle has gotten Mr. Griffin in trouble with Texas NAACP leader Gary Bledsoe, who last month joined other Texas NAACP members in demanding Mr. Griffin's resignation as general counsel. "We think it's inconsistent that someone has an association with them and with us," Mr. Bledsoe said.

Mr. Lowe admits he, too, was taken aback when he found out who his lawyer was. "My girlfriend and I were in his waiting room and got kind of bored, so we starting snooping around and we looked and saw an NAACP pin," he said. "And we looked some more and saw he had this bookcase of African-American history and we kind of looked at each other said, 'No, he can't be black.' "

The state has accused Mr. Lowe of using threats and intimidation to thwart the court-ordered desegregation of public housing in east Texas, particularly in Vidor, where the town's only two remaining black residents fled last week to escape hostility and harassment. But Mr. Lowe now says he is happy to be Mr. Griffin's client.

That's not surprising given the Klan's cynical attitude toward the Constitution, whose protections it is quick to invoke for itself even as it seeks to deprive others of their civil rights.

More puzzling is the Texas NAACP's position. Mr. Bledsoe has asked NAACP national headquarters if his group should dispense with Griffin as a pro-bono attorney. We hope NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis will point out that if Texas can seize Klan records and membership lists, it could also one day seize those of the NAACP. That's the principle Mr. Griffin is defending. He deserves the NAACP's backing on it 100 percent.

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