ATLANTA - Augusta's attempts to control protesters suffered a blow Thursday when a federal appeals court ruled a local ordinance unconstitutional.
The ruling was a belated victory for National Council of Women's Organizations head Martha Burk, coming a year and a week after she led a small but well-publicized protest during the 2003 Masters Tournament against Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership.
Ms. Burk, who didn't picket last week's tournament, had sought to position a few dozen protesters outside the club's gates to maximize their visibility. But when she announced her plans, city officials rushed to pass an ordinance restricting where demonstrations can be held and ultimately keeping her a mile away.
On Thursday, the court struck down that ordinance, in a 2-1 decision, saying it improperly targeted only political protests and that it gave too much power to the sheriff and the city attorney.
"I'm very pleased that our First Amendment rights have been vindicated and that the club was not able to manipulate the laws of the city of Augusta to suit its bidding," Ms. Burk said.
City lawyers had argued that the ordinance was passed to maintain safety, not stifle unpopular protests. But the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta didn't buy it.
"The substantial interest the county has in protecting public safety and ensuring the free flow of traffic are simply not advanced by the breadth of this permit requirement, which applies to every group of five people standing in a park, sidewalk or countless other public places, who wish to support a political candidate, a local ordinance or perhaps even a soldier coming home from war," writes Judge Rosemary Barkett.
Augusta Mayor Bob Young said he was disappointed in the court's ruling.
"I'm very disappointed because we had some very competent legal counsel ... but we're encouraged because there was one judge that agreed with us," Mr. Young said.
Augusta's former City Attorney Jim Wall said he was reading and studying the court's decision, after which he would make a recommendation to the Augusta Commission.
One of the three judges on the appeals panel dissented, Mr. Wall said.
"There have been four judges who looked at it, one district court judge and three court of appeals judges. And two agree that the ordinance is valid. Two disagree," he said.
Indeed, Appeals Senior Judge Paul H. Roney pointed to the stated intent of the ordinance as a safeguard against the sheriff abusing his authority to deny permits. And he noted that the country's highest court had already approved a similar ordinance.
Mr. Young said the commission will study Mr. Wall's advice on what action to take next in a legal session during Tuesday's commission meeting.
Mr. Young said tweaking the ordinance to fit the court's requirements is an option.
"We could modify it to include those changes so it would meet the test, but then again, someone might test it again and drag it out in litigation," he said.
The city could also ask for the full court to hear it as well, he said.
"Or we could just do nothing and let it die, but I don't think it's going to happen," Mr. Young said.
"Whatever we do, we'd like it to be able to stand a test, and would like it to be up to final examination," he said.
Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said the ruling has nothing to do with where someone can or can't protest in Augusta.
"(The ruling) just says that the ordinance is not constitutional," he said. "What it says is that if anybody wanted to protest today, they would not have to get a permit."
"That does not say that anybody can protest anywhere they want to, any time they want to," Sheriff Strength said.
"If it's a safety issue, it's a security issue."
He said he hopes the city government fashions a new protest ordinance.
"Without a doubt, they'll be looking at the public safety issue, because that was the issue in the first place, and that will continue to be the issue here with us," Sheriff Strength said.
Glenn Greenspan, a spokesman for Augusta National Golf Club, deferred any comment from the club about the ruling to officials in the city government.
Ms. Burk said Thursday that she has not ruled out returning to Augusta next year.
"I hope there would be no reason to come back next year," she said.
"I hope the club comes to its senses, opens its doors to women and gets this behind them. But if they do not, I certainly would not rule out being in front of those gates next April."
The appeals court decision could also affect those wanting to protest in other Georgia cities during this summer's G-8 Summit. Officials in Savannah, Brunswick and Chatham and Glynn counties recently enacted ordinances similar to the one just struck down, said Gerry Weber, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ordinances were designed to prevent destructive protests such as those at previous G-8 summits.
But Mr. Weber, who represented Ms. Burk, said those officials should reconsider.
"I cannot imagine a court upholding any ordinances from any of these cities after this ruling," he said.
Staff Writer Jeremy Craig contributed to this article.
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