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Augusta commission undecided on protests

Martha Burk and Jesse Jackson can still wait until just before the Masters tournament in April to announce plans to demonstrate at this year's event.

And the local sheriff can wait to approve or deny their request to protest, too.

That was the result of a split vote in the Augusta Richmond County Commission Tuesday.

The 10-man commission failed to pass, by a 5-5 vote, a proposed ordinance that would have required demonstrators to give at least 30 days notice of their plans to picket.

The law would also have required the sheriff to approve or reject the application within 10 business days after that.

It also would have virtually guaranteed protesters the right to a judicial review of the decision if their application was denied.

The matter isn't dead. It is set to come up again at a February meeting, allowing plenty of time for it to be put in place. But local officials said the results could be the same, unless Mayor Bob Young decides to break a deadlock.

"I'm grateful that at least half of the [commission] recognizes the ordinance for what it is. An attempt to stifle free speech and put off social change," said Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

All five commissioners who opposed the ordinance are African-American. All five who supported it are white.

Augusta Richmond County attorney Jim Wall said the ordinance was designed "to protect and enhance the rights" of protesters.

Under the current law, he said, if protesters are denied their permit, they must file suit to gain permission. Under both the current and proposed laws, the sheriff's office would decide whether to allow a demonstration.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength has said that public safety, not the right to free speech, is his key concern in the matter. He has said he will not allow demonstrations on public property, specifically Washington Road, surrounding Augusta National Golf Club -- the site of the Masters -- because it presents a safety concern. Washington Road's sidewalks are too narrow, the foot traffic too heavy and the number of vendors along the right-of-way too numerous for protest activity, he has said.

Commissioners who backed the new ordinance praised what they called an effort to be "pro-active."

Wall had told them the county was trying to update all its ordinances to include judicial review.

But commissioners voting against the proposal questioned both the need and the timing of the law.

They noted that groups as extreme as the Ku Klux Klan had received permission to demonstrate in Augusta.

Some at the meeting pointed to the ordinance as further embarrassing the city.

"I would hate to be on national TV talking about how we're doing something to stop a demonstration in April," said Commissioner Lee Beard.

Several citizens in the audience agreed.

"I don't understand why they can't just welcome those people," said Denice Traina, who said she plans to demonstrate at Augusta National. "If you don't deny the Klan, who do you deny?"

Commissioner Marion Williams, who also voted against the proposed law, questioned the need to ban a demonstration from public areas. He pointed to protests in Washington, D.C., where millions of people turn out in heavily-trafficked areas.

Several of the commissioners who opposed the ordinance cited civil rights history and the value of public demonstrations.

 

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