Originally created 04/09/03

Solid ground

"Civil liberties, as guaranteed by the Constitution, imply the existence of an organized society maintaining public order without which liberty itself would be lost ..."

- Cox vs. State of New Hampshire

Occasionally violent anti-war and anti-globalization protesters have, in recent years, demonstrated more than just their views. They've demonstrated the fact that providing for peaceful protests has become an increasingly tricky business.

Protesters who have shown a willingness to tie up entire downtowns in knots, to damage property, to block the flow of people and goods - i.e., cost innocent people money - and to risk lives to "express" themselves outside the bounds of both law and reason have, unfortunately, required law enforcement authorities to take steps to protect the public at some cost to free speech.

But such restrictions - in particular on the time, place and manner of protests - are both necessary and lawful. And they protect lives - of protest participants, bystanders and passersby, and quite possibly of law enforcement officers.

That's why it is such a relief to see that a federal judge Monday upheld Augusta's newly amended protest ordinance, and Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength's application of it during Masters Week.

U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. rejected arguments by Martha Burk, and those aligned with her in fighting Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership, that the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face and in its application.

The ruling presumably means that peaceful, safe protests can be conducted on 5.1 acres of land just east of the famed golf course.

While no one expects the kind of out-of-control protests here that have occurred in other cities and on other topics, Judge Bowen's rulings confirmed Sheriff Strength's concerns about public safety - in particular, the already hazardous traffic on pedestrian-unfriendly Washington Road near the golf course that could become outright dangerous with the infusion of protesters.

Burk and Co. might want you to believe the sheriff's decision to restrict their protest to the 5.1-acre site - graciously donated by the Augusta National itself - was aimed at keeping their "embarrassing" messages away from the National's entryways.

Rubbish. For one thing, that message has been blared incessantly in the national media; there's simply no need to try to silence it. For another thing, the message isn't embarrassing; it may be trivial and wrongheaded, but certainly not embarrassing, and certainly not to those who support private clubs' rights to decide their own membership.

The fact is, Martha Burk is on shaky ground. Thankfully, those in a position to safeguard the public are not.


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