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Judge upholds Augusta protest law

A federal judge upheld a law that allows the sheriff to regulate protests like the one planned by Martha Burk at Augusta National Golf Club.

Monday's ruling was only a partial victory for city officials, however.

U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. hasn't decided if Sheriff Ronald Strength violated his discretion by denying Burk the right to protest at the front gates of the exclusive club, where the Masters begins Thursday.

Burk is planning to protest Augusta National's all-male membership on Saturday. Aware of the time constraints of the case, Bowen said he would decide the second issue soon.

The Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on Burk's behalf.

"Obviously, we're disappointed with the ruling," said Gerry Weber, legal director of Georgia ACLU. "But the judge hasn't addressed whether our clients can be relegated to the outer limits to have their demonstration or whether they can be in a place where they can actually communicate with the folks they want to communicate with."

Burk, who heads the National Council of Women's Organizations, wants to post 24 demonstrators outside the front gate of Augusta National and 200 more across the street during the Masters' third round.

Strength, who has broad authority over public protests, has told Burk and other groups the only place they can protest legally is a 5.1-acre site nearly a half-mile from the gate.

Strength says there's too much traffic along Washington Road, which runs in front of the club, to ensure safe protests.

ACLU lawyers challenged the ordinance, saying it gives the sheriff too much power to approve or deny protests and dictate their location.

While acknowledging that "the ordinance was passed in anticipation for protests during the forthcoming Masters golf tournament," Bowen said the city had crafted a constitutional law.

"The ordinance does not discriminate against a particular viewpoint or limit speech to certain subject matters," he wrote in a 17-page decision.

"The ordinance, on its face, demonstrates that providing for the safety of the protesters and onlookers was the primary concern of the (city-county) commission. It is axiomatic that a government has a compelling interest in providing for the safety of its citizens."

City attorney Jim Ellison said it was too early to comment on the case.

"We'd rather wait and see what the full judge's ruling is," he said. "Until we know how the judge is going to rule completely, I don't know how to comment."

Augusta National maintained that it has no interest in the court case.

"As we have said all along, any demonstrations that take place outside our grounds are a matter solely for local authorities," club spokesman Glenn Greenspan said.

The sheriff's office has approved protest permits for nine groups.

Burk and the Rev. Jesse Jackson plan to demonstrate against the all-male membership. Two groups have received permits to protest against Burk. Another group plans to protest against Jackson. A one-man faction of the Ku Klux Klan, who lists Tiger Woods as his favorite golfer, will support Augusta National's rights to private membership.

Another man wants to demonstrate in support of President Bush's war policy.

Then there's Deke Wiggins and his "People Against Ridiculous Protests." Their permit has been approved, too.

 

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