ATLANTA -- The city of Augusta illegally restricted a small protest last year against all-male membership at the home of the Masters, a federal court ruled Thursday.
The National Council of Women's Organizations tried to picket outside the private Augusta National Golf Club during the tournament, but local officials cited security concerns and forced about 50 protesters to move a half-mile away.
Martha Burk, head of the women's group, sued, saying the decision was based on her group's views. She took special exception to an ordinance, passed a month before the protest, requiring a permit for any assembly of five or more people.
In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance was illegal.
"The County cannot seriously believe that political expression involving as few as five people is likely to disrupt traffic, disturb the peace, threaten public safety and require advance notice to public officials," the judges wrote.
Augusta Mayor Bob Young said he was disappointed by the ruling, adding that it was too soon to know how the city will respond.
"We had hoped to put this behind us," he said.
Last year, Burk's group asked a federal judge to block the Augusta ordinance to allow it to protest in front of the club. That request was denied, leading to the appeal.
Burk's group didn't send any protesters to this year's tournament, citing the restrictive ordinances. But the group might return to Augusta next spring, she said Thursday.
"Our First Amendment rights have been vindicated," she said. "I hope the rights of women to walk through those gates as the equal of men is coming soon."
Augusta National has not had a female among its 300 members since it opened in 1933. Last year, the issue became incendiary when club chairman Hootie Johnson said Augusta National would not be forced to take a female member "at the point of a bayonet."
The golf club was not named in the lawsuit. Augusta National spokesman Glenn Greenspan called it "a matter for Richmond County and the city of Augusta."
The court said city officials had too much power to decide who could protest and who could not, creating "the opportunity for undetectable censorship."
Judge Paul H. Roney, who cast the dissenting vote, wrote that it was essential for the city to have notice of any protests so that it can make "proper logistical arrangements."