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Appeals court allows N.Y. anti-mask law

KKK's free-speech rights are not violated, court rules

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -- A federal appeals court Tuesday ruled that a New York state law barring public demonstrators from wearing masks is valid under the U.S. Constitution and does not violate Ku Klux Klan members' free speech rights.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling reverses a trial court's finding that the state law violated the First Amendment. The three-judge panel said the mask was not protected by the free-speech provision because it does not convey a message independently of the robe and hood.

"Since the robe and hood alone clearly serve to identify the American Knights with the Klan, we conclude that the mask does not communicate any message that the robe and hood do not," the appeals court said. "The expressive force of the mask is, therefore, redundant."

U.S. District Judge Harold Baer held in a 2002 ruling that the state law violated the free speech rights of the Butler, Indiana-based Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The group had argued that the wearing of the mask was symbolic speech that is protected by the Constitution.

If the judge's decision had been upheld, members of the group would have been able to hide their identities by wearing hoods and masks at New York rallies.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union that had argued on behalf of the American Knights, said the organization was reviewing the ruling and considering its options.

Baer's ruling dates back to a 1999 case in which the city had denied parade and sound permits to a Klan group that wanted to hold a "White Pride" rally wearing masks. City lawyers said they told the group they could hold a demonstration only if they appeared without disguises.

Although a trial judge ruled that group could march with masks, the Second Circuit had stayed the decision. The group held its event on October 23, 1999, without masks but continued to fight the matter.

The American Knights describes itself in court papers as an organization that advocates white separatism and "white pride." Although it is not formally associated with the KKK, the two groups share certain beliefs and both wear robes and hooded masks.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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