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Burk Calls Ordinance Intimidation Tactic

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The woman leading the fight against the Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership says the city's new protest law is an intimidation tactic designed to stifle free speech during The Masters golf tournament.
 
Augusta officials passed the law Tuesday, requiring demonstrators to give the sheriff 20 days notice of protest plans.
 
Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, recently visited Augusta to scout locations for protests. Even with the new rule, she says she has plenty of time to plan before Masters week begins April 7.
 
'I do not know the legal implications,' Burk said. 'But I think the moral and psychological implications are pretty clear. It's an intimidation tactic. It seems to me to be a stifling of speech rights.'
 
The Georgia legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union said the law gives the sheriff too much authority to deny permits.
 
'The revised ordinance continues to have some very significant constitutional problems and gives very broad and unconstitutional discretion to the city to deny a permit or to change a permit to a different location,' Gerry Weber of the Georgia ACLU said.
 
Augusta mayor Bob Young, city attorney Jim Wall and sheriff Ronald Strength did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. Strength has said that he will not allow protests along Washington Road, the heavily traveled street that leads to the club.
 
The Augusta-Richmond County Commission adopted the new protest law 6-5, with the mayor casting the tiebreaking vote. For the third time in a month, the vote split the commission along racial lines with five black commissioners -- who have said the law unfairly restricts civil rights -- voting against the change.
 
'The furthest thing from the truth is we're trying to restrict anybody from obtaining a permit to protest,' said commissioner Bill Kuhlke, who voted to pass the new law.
 
Kuhlke noted the revised law includes an appeals process that allows protesters who are denied permits to seek judicial review without having to file suit. 'So in a way it's standing up for those who want to get a permit,' he said.
 
Any opposing commissioner could have blocked the mayor's tiebreaking vote by simply refusing to vote. The mayor can vote only in a 5-5 tie, with six votes needed to pass a law. But commissioners who wanted to change the protest law worked out a deal with opponents by agreeing to put the city fire department in an inner-city office building.
 
Wall had urged commissioners to revise Augusta's protest law, expanding it from six paragraphs to eight pages, because it was too vague and left the city vulnerable to lawsuits.
 
Young had said he supported the changes to 'save the taxpayers' money from serious litigation.'
 
But the ACLU's Weber said the heart of the protest ordinance remains the same: The Augusta-Richmond County sheriff can deny applications, change protest locations or halt protests in progress for reasons ranging from public endangerment to snarled traffic to threatening weather.