Originally created 04/09/03

Membership protesters dispute location ruling

After weeks of uncertainty about where protesters will be allowed to demonstrate during Masters Week, local law enforcement officers say they got their answer from a federal court ruling issued Monday.

It seems some questions still remain, however.

The National Council of Women's Organizations and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition still have not confirmed where they will be this weekend and instead have filed an appeal of the ruling with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

A full brief of their appeal is expected to be submitted to the Atlanta court today, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jack Batson, of Augusta, said Tuesday.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. ruled against the protesters' request to demonstrate at several high-traffic areas along Washington Road this week, including at Magnolia Drive and Berckmans Road. The civil rights groups oppose Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership.

The first order of business for the appeals court's three-judge panel will be to decide whether they have enough time to take up the appeal before Saturday's protest, Mr. Batson said, adding, "Their review is on an emergency basis."

Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the women's council, has said she is disappointed by the ruling. Sheriff's officials said the order has given them a better idea of how to plan for expected demonstrations.

Although the appeal will tackle both the constitutionality of the city's protest laws and the sheriff's application of those laws, attorneys say they are more concerned about the immediate problem of their protest's location.

"The key question is where the protest will be," said the ACLU's legal director, Gerry Weber. "The long-term question is the constitutionality of the protest ordinance."

ACLU officials also have said protesters could choose to demonstrate in groups of four or fewer, exempting them from protest restrictions.

Sheriff's officials say they are continuing to plan for protests in compliance with the judge's decision. Officers will spend today placing last-minute phone calls to expected protesters in an effort to determine how many people will be at the Washington Road site.

The sheriff's office plans to have 85 marked vehicles stationed at the 5.1-acre parcel and 23 more at a second protest location requested by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition at Highland and Wheeler roads, Sheriff Ronnie Strength said.

Law enforcement had been awaiting the ruling to organize exactly where protests will be at the Washington Road location, Sheriff Strength said. On Tuesday morning, they began moving ahead with a plan for Saturday, the heaviest day for protest activity.

"We're pretty well set on that now, especially after the judge's ruling," Sheriff Strength said. "We had worked prior to the judge's ruling with different scenarios, the (field) being one of them. We're very confident now that we have set up that site to everyone's approval."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.


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