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Augusta Fails to Revise Protest Law

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Divided along racial lines, Augusta officials failed Monday for a second time to pass a new law designed to protect the city from lawsuits by demonstrators picketing at the Masters.
Augusta expects the National Council of Women's Organizations and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to protest Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership during the April tournament.
Jim Wall, the attorney for Augusta-Richmond County, says the city's current ordinance that gives the sheriff authority to approve or deny protest permits could be too vague to withstand a court challenge.
The proposed changes included requiring protest groups to give 20 days' notice to the sheriff, who would have to respond within seven days. No such deadlines exist in the current law.
City commissioners, who first deadlocked on the revised law Jan. 21, once again failed to pass it with a 5-5 tie. Mayor Bob Young and four white commissioners voted in favor of the changes. Five black commissioners voted to keep the old law.
``If it was good enough for the Ku Klux Klan to march down the main streets of Augusta on a bright Sunday afternoon ... it's good enough for people who want to hold peaceful, nonviolent protests,'' said commissioner Willie Mays, who is black.
Commissioner Marion Williams, who is also black, said he feared requiring 20 days' notice for protests would violate the rights of residents to spontaneously petition elected officials.
``We are not only crippling people from out of town, but we're crippling people from this town too,'' Williams said.
Wall said the changes weren't intended to stifle civil rights. He said Augusta's protest law, which consists of five short paragraphs, needs to be more specific to stand up in court. The proposed changes, which include judicial review of appeals fill eight pages.
``Whether there's a demonstration during the Masters or not, this problem is not going to go away in April,'' Wall said. ``We need to fix our ordinance ... and I hope you'll address it before we wind up in court.''
The mayor, who votes only to make or break a tie, said he supported the revised law because it might ``save the taxpayers money from serious litigation.''
Martha Burk, chair of the NCWO, has denounced the protest revisions as ``an attempt to stifle free speech.''