Classified Gazette co-publisher Joe Walsh took the heat when readers opened the paper to find racist and anti-Semitic slurs.
DA rules out hate crime
By Paula Harris
YOU’D BETTER put on a thick skin to read this,” warns Classified Gazette co-publisher Joe Walsh, angrily referring to the Ku Klux Klan hate flyers found last week wrapped around his free newspaper and distributed to the homes of unwary Santa Rosa residents. The flyers, put out as part of a national recruitment drive by a sector of the white supremacist organization known as the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, were strewn with racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic statements that stunned many community members.
But, according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, the material contained in the flyer does not constitute a hate crime. In fact, the office is hard-pressed to find any kind of criminal misconduct in the incident. “We can’t find a crime in inserting offensive material in [the newspapers],” says District Attorney Mike Mullins. “No person was singled out or threatened, and no one was deprived of their property.”
However, local residents were outraged by the vitriolic statements contained in the flyers. “We believe that it is the goal of the vast majority of niggers in America to destroy every vestige of White California,” the flyer noted. “We will place trained, patriotic, white economists in charge of our economy and punish the Jew tycoons and leeches who have brought America to the brink of financial disaster.”
Touted as a “political program” for the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the material, which depicted hooded figures and promised to carry out a nationwide campaign of “Social Hygiene,” also contained a call for recruitment, asking interested parties to contact a post office box in Victor, Calif., a small rural town near Lodi.
“I can’t believe [the District Attorney’s Office] doesn’t see this as theft,” says Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “Our opinion is that the taking of newspapers, even freely distributed ones, deprives people of the opportunity to read the publication and is a theft. In this particular case, it goes beyond taking the paper to unauthorized use of the publication.”
Ewert is working to put together legislation that would make it a crime to distribute literature in any newspaper without permission from the publisher. “We’re attempting to clarify existing language in the penal code and find an author for this bill,” he explains. At this juncture, the KKK literature appears to be protected speech, although the manner in which it was distributed may have been illegal.
“We may be investigating the incident as a theft and have a criminal filing on theft-related charges,” explains Santa Rosa Police Commander Scott Swanson. “The paper was not intended to be taken en masse and used in this manner.”
“It’s pretty scary,” says publisher Walsh. “We’ve got these nut cakes running around. I didn’t think the KKK was around anymore, but evidently I was wrong.”
According to Joe Roy, director of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks militia groups and hate crimes, the Klan has seen a resurgence since 1981, and “one of the fastest-growing factions” is the American Knights. “This group of the Ku Klux Klan is aggressively recruiting around the country,” says Roy. “They are very active and are holding frequent meetings and rallies.”
The faction, which has 25 chapters nationwide, has used similar recruitment tactics in other towns, including hiding business cards inside books at public libraries. “They use any new ideas they can come up with to pipe people into their movement,” says Roy, adding that the American Knights constitute a more inflammatory sector of the KKK. “Their rhetoric is a lot more fiery than a lot of other Klan groups who have adopted more of a p.r. stance and have begun calling themselves not ‘racists’ but ‘racialists,’ and saying, ‘We don’t hate anybody.
“We just love white people.'”
The Santa Rosa Police Department investigation is continuing. In addition, Walsh and co-publisher Riley Hurd are offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the flyers, if it’s deemed a crime was committed.
Walsh says the incident was first brought to the attention of Classified Gazette employees last week when about 30 phone calls streamed into the office from outraged individuals who believed the paper was condoning the KKK. “People called in to complain, saying, ‘What the heck is this?'” he relates. He says that someone stole a bunch of papers from store or street distribution racks, wrapped the flyers around the papers, which they then bundled up and threw onto porches in five different Santa Rosa neighborhoods.
Walsh estimates that about 500 papers contained the ranting KKK flyers.
The American Knights are believed to have similarly targeted free newspapers in Texas and Pennsylvania as unwitting vehicles for their message.
Walsh complains that police were “slow to agree to investigate” the incident, citing free-speech concerns. “[Police] told me no crime had been committed, but there has certainly been a crime committed against us,” says the angry publisher.
“They took the papers out of the distribution racks, they didn’t bother to pay insert charges, and they are damaging our paper and our reputation by putting this dirt in there.
“It’s clear to me crimes have been committed.”
But Swanson says the incident has put police in a difficult position. “We find the message repulsive, but we’re obligated to honor the First Amendment,” he says.
From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.