The five Augusta commissioners who blocked changing the city's protest ordinance last week cited a number of reasons:
Poor timing. Coming less than three months before the Masters, changing the law now could look like city authorities were moving to frustrate planned protests against Augusta National Golf Club's men-only membership policy by Martha Burk's women's organizations and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/Push coalition.
To quell the publicity that the proposed ordinance changes were attracting across the nation and around the world; commissioners rightly want the legal brouhaha and the city commission itself to stay low profile.
Free speech issue. Some of the five commissioners seemed to think that tinkering with the protest ordinances would somehow stifle the free speech rights of the demonstrators. They cited their own participation in demonstrations as proof of the current law's effectiveness.
"I'm against Jesse Jackson coming to Augusta. I'm against Martha Burk, but they have a right to freedom of speech," said Commissioner Bobby Hankerson.
Hankerson was one of five black commissioners who voted against amending the law. The five commissioners who backed the change are white, yet we don't see the division as racial.
In reality, blacks and whites want the same thing - a protest ordinance that accommodates free speech rights, promotes safety on the streets and won't embarrass the city.
This is exactly what the new ordinance is designed to do and is why it's supported by both Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength and City Attorney Jim Wall. It provides much-needed procedural safeguards in applying for and issuing protest permits.
For instance, current law requires demonstrators to seek a permit from the Sheriff's Office before picketing on public property. If the permit is denied, the protest group's only recourse is to go to court to fight the city.
Do commissioners really want this kind of legal battle going on while the tournament is getting underway? With the national and world media here for the tournament, the legal skirmish would attract an awful lot of extra media attention.
Meanwhile, some of the protesters - with no assigned place to picket and speechify while waiting for the court ruling - could begin to show up outside the golf club's gates, resulting in some serious safety problems and more bad publicity.
This is what the sheriff and city attorney want to avoid.
The proposed ordinance amendment would curtail no one's free speech rights, says Wall. It would simply allow for a more orderly legal procedure that would lay out the picketing rules well before the tournament started. It also ensures the city complies with federal law and court decisions on free speech issues.
Next month would not be too late for the commission to reconsider the amendment. Hopefully, some of the black commissioners will change their minds; but if not, Mayor Bob Young could provide the tiebreaker vote - if he's not out of town again. Young said he wasn't sure how he would have voted. He needs to have a talk with Strength and Wall.
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