Last night, Channel 4 featured a report about a stretch of Highway 85 adopted by Denver's branch of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group -- not the kind of publicity calculated to thrill the Colorado Department of Transportation, which administers the adopt-a-highway program.
CDOT spokeswoman Stacey Stegman admits that when the organization submitted its application to pick up trash and otherwise clean up this stretch of road, "our initial inclination was to deny their permit based on the fact that there is a well-documented history of violence among these types of groups, and we didn't want to have incidents of violence or safety issues on our highways as a result of having this kind of group out there."
But then the lawyers got involved.
According to Stegman, CDOT consulted with the state attorney general's office, and staffers there brought up a precedent in Missouri. Several years ago, the state lost an expensive battle to prevent a Ku Klux Klan outfit from adopting a piece of highway. Since then, the state allowed a National Socialist group to adopt a highway, too -- and after further research, as well as conversations with Denver's Anti-Defamation League, CDOT officials decided they'd have to do likewise.
"It's basically an issue of free speech," Stegman says. "We have to allow it."
The adopt-a-highway rules are fairly simple and straightforward. Participants "have to be a nonprofit or community group -- it's very open and inclusive," Stegman notes. "It includes state highways and lesser traveled roads; we don't have an adopt-a-highway program on the interstate or urban areas. There are also certain safety requirements: You have to go through safety training, which I think is a video, and you have to wear safety gear. People have to pick up the bags from us -- and then they leave the bags and have to coordinate with us to pick them up."
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As Stegman acknowledges, signage controversies are nothing new; she cites grumbling about a placard informing people how to get to Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs. But the National Socialists' request was the first that Stegman recalls for the adopt-a-highway program.
In Missouri, some legislators attempted to counter the neo-Nazi signage by renaming the highway after Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a civil-rights figure. Nothing like that's in the works here yet, but Stegman says CDOT will be monitoring the National Socialists' behavior: "They have a legitimate permit, and they're going to be expected to meet the terms of that permit. And if they don't, or if there are any incidents of violence or anything like that, the permit is up for review annually, and it can be revoked."
Meanwhile, Stegman doubts that other dodgy organizations will suddenly flood CDOT with adopt-a-highway requests in the hopes of getting state-sanctioned publicity. In her words, "It's a pretty big commitment to go out there and pick up litter, and not a lot of groups want to do that."
Not yet, anyhow.