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Judge hears arguments in Augusta case

Lawyers for a women's rights advocate asked a judge Wednesday to override a sheriff's ban on allowing her to demonstrate at the front gate of Augusta National during the Masters.

The request comes 10 days before Martha Burk plans to protest at the club because of its all-male membership. Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, wants thousands of golf fans to walk by her demonstration.

But Sheriff Ronald Strength says the closest Burk can legally protest is a 5-acre site just less than a half mile from the gate. A city law revised last month gives Strength broad authority to regulate protests.

Burk's lawyers told a federal judge that their client was denied access to public property outside the gates because Augusta wants to protect its image -- not public safety, as the sheriff has said. Burk was not at the hearing.

``This is an embarrassing protest and I'm sure the city would rather it be moved up the street where there are fewer people around to see it,'' said Sarah Shalf, one of Burk's lawyers.

Augusta officials deny blocking Burk's free-speech rights. They say the busy street in front of Augusta National is crammed with pedestrian and vehicle traffic during the tournament, making it dangerous for protesters.

``It is the paramount duty of the government to provide for public safety,'' said Jim Ellison, an attorney for the city of Augusta.

Strength has approved permits for about 900 protesters from various groups during Masters week. He testified that he never considered allowing protests at the front gate or across the street.

Though Augusta's law requires permits only for groups of five or more, Strength said even one protester by the gate would be too many.

Burk's protest is planned for April 12, the third day of the Masters.


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