ATLANTA - Confederate heritage enthusiasts reacted angrily Wednesday after the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board unanimously agreed to overhaul the state's rules on permits for protests at state parks.
Board members insisted the new policy gives protesters easier access to state parks by giving officials no more than five days to decide whether to issue a permit to a person or group. The old rules did not specify how quickly officials must respond to a permit application.
"We were not trying to limit or restrain protesters," said Sara Clark, an Alpharetta resident who serves as chairwoman of the board's Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Committee. "We were actually trying to make it easier to get a permit."
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said the state can now run out the clock on demonstrators who apply for a permit less than five days before an event.
"What advantage is it for someone who wants to express dissent to have to wait five days?" said Daniel Coleman, spokesman for the organization's Georgia Division. "This is just a loss for all the citizens of Georgia."
Becky Kelley, who oversees the department's parks and historic sites, said Wednesday that her staff would never attempt to hold up a permit until after a scheduled event.
State parks have served as the site of various protests and other First Amendment activities for multiple Confederate heritage groups, including many who refer to themselves as "flaggers."
Some flaggers have gathered at state parks in recent years to protest appearances by Georgia's two most recent governors: Democrat Roy Barnes, who led efforts to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia flag in 2001, and Republican Sonny Perdue, who flaggers say did not keep a promise to let voters decide whether to restore the emblem to the flag.
Park officials have said the new protest permit rules were not motivated by the flaggers, but instead were recommended years ago after similar changes were made to the rules governing protests in federal parks.
The permit debate has also gained the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which says the department's rules violate free speech rights under the U.S. and Georgia constitutions.
ACLU Legal Director Gerry Weber wrote DNR Commissioner Noel Holcomb on Tuesday, saying that passage of the new rules "may lead to unnecessary and preventable litigation in this matter."
Mr. Weber did not attend the board's meeting Wednesday, instead sending an intern.