Originally created 02/20/03

This must be our goal

When your lawyer says you need to do something in order to limit your potential legal liability by perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars, that tends to get your attention.

That was the message sent in recent weeks to the Augusta Commission by City Attorney Jim Wall regarding the proposed change in Augusta's protest ordinance.

Commissioners finally listened on Tuesday - but just barely: They needed Mayor Bob Young to cast the tie-breaking vote after commissioners had split 5-5.

The change in the ordinance, effective immediately, provides for a 20-day protest pwemit procedure that Wall says is more in line with federal law - specifically in allowing would-be protesters an above-board appeal process.

There was no such process in Augusta law until Tuesday. Previously, the only recourse a turned-down applicant had was to file a potentially costly lawsuit.

The law also allows for applying for a permit less than 20 days before the event "in the case of exigent or unanticipated circumstances" - a crucial loophole ensuring free speech rights.

The ordinance is obviously still subject to a legal challenge - and may be vulnerable on a couple of points: 1) The law requires protesters to "provide an indemnification and hold-harmless agreement in favor of Augusta" - which is a big "if" for your exercise of free speech; and 2) the law provides for expedited application for a permit, but not for expedited appeal of a permit denial, which it should.

The larger problem now, however, is how this change in the law will be perceived.

Coming as it does in such proximity to the expected Masters week protests of the all-male membership of Augusta National, the ordinance change may make it appear as if the city is putting up legal barricades.

It can't help the perception, either, that the change involves applying for protest permits 20 days in advance.

In short, the city is likely to get beat up - perhaps in the national spotlight - for doing what appears to be the right thing.

The onus is now on the city - its government, its lawyers, its businesses and its citizens - to make it clear the ordinance change was not an attempt to stifle debate or silence the protesters.

It's also clear that words alone will not be enough to do that. Our good intentions must be backed up with actions of good will.

What does that mean? It means going the extra mile to accommodate peaceful, orderly and safe protests. It means explaining to protest organizers why certain areas directly adjoining the Augusta National - Washington Road, for example - are not safe for protesting.

It also means adopting, and demonstrating, an attitude of accommodation. Freedom of speech - even speech one finds objectionable - is an American birthright. We may not appreciate someone's message, but we ought to embrace his or her right to make it known.

The city's image was going to be up for grabs anyway this year. It is even more in peril with the passage of this ordinance.

The main thing is that protests be accommodated in a safe place, and in a manner that respects the protesters' rights to free speech.

The second most important thing is that everyone knows that is the community's goal.

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