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Imagine the scene this April: Beyond the blooming azaleas that adorn the course at the Masters golf tournament, a group of women stands in a nearby parking lot holding signs and chanting protests against the all-male membership of the Augusta National Golf Club. Across a line of helmeted sheriff’s deputies stands a group of men who’ve come to support the private club’s right to decide who to admit as members. Television crews attempt to move between the groups to interview both sides. Golf spectators on their way to the club and interested bystanders stop to gawk at the scene. Suddenly, someone tosses an empty beer bottle. It hits a woman in the head. The deputies push the men and the spectators away from the women, but the men shove back. A brawl ensues, sending 25 people — women, men, deputies, TV reporters and spectators — to the hospital. If anyone sued the city of Augusta and Richmond County over the incident, both groups of protesters could have to pay for any damages, according to a new law passed last week by the Augusta-Richmond County Commission. The law requires any group of five or more people staging a public demonstration or protest to “provide an indemnification and ‘hold harmless’ agreement in favor of Augusta, Georgia and its elected officials … in a form satisfactory to the attorney for Augusta, Georgia.” Two First Amendment experts said the “hold harmless” requirement could cause trouble if challenged in court. No action is pending, but Martha Burk, the president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations who started the protest against the golf club, has publicly denounced the law. Gerald R. Weber Jr. of the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the Augusta law — like those in many other cities — has constitutional problems. “We are actively monitoring the situation,” he added. David E. Hudson, a partner in Augusta’s Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley who represents the Georgia Press Association, said, “I’m not so sure a city can condition the undertaking of First Amendment rights on indemnity.” Hudson praised the commission for fixing other problems in the city’s antiquated protest law. The new law established specific standards by which the sheriff should decide whether to issue a demonstration permit and added a quick process by which anyone denied a permit may appeal to the city attorney, who would then ask a local court for review. But Richard L. Wilson, an Orlando, Fla., attorney who represented supporters of legalized marijuana in a recent public demonstration case at the U.S. Supreme Court, said the Augusta indemnification requirement sounded legally unjustified. The city must be responsible for how it protects protesters, said Wilson. “That’s part of why we pay taxes.” In Wilson’s case, a unanimous Court upheld a permit application process enacted by the city of Chicago as not restricting free speech. The Chicago ordinance also required an indemnification agreement, but that issue was not before the Court, leaving it apparently unresolved. Thomas v. Chicago Park District, 534 U.S. 316 (2002). Wilson compared Augusta’s indemnification requirement to a “heckler’s veto” prohibited by the Court because demonstrators’ free speech rights may not be restricted by the possibility that others may react to the demonstration with violence the government is required to stop. Neither James B. Wall, the Augusta city attorney, nor Richmond County Sheriff Ronald Strength could be reached to discuss the new law or any potential flaws. If women protesting the Masters golf tournament sue the city of Augusta over its new law, they would join an eclectic group that, by the very nature of their controversial causes, has made free speech law in Georgia and around the country. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for a white supremacist group that challenged a Forsyth County ordinance. It charged demonstrators a fee based on the costs that might be incurred to maintain public order. Forsyth County v. The Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992). Throughout the 1990s, supporters of legalized marijuana battled the city of Atlanta over its ordinances governing the staging of festivals in city parks, leading to a decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000 upholding the latest version of the city’s law. Coalition for the Abolition of Marijuana Prohibition v. Atlanta, 219 F. 3d 301 (2000). Last year, a federal judge in Columbus, Ga., held that the First Amendment permits magnetometer searches of demonstrators who organized a protest at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas. That decision is on appeal, by the ACLU, at the 11th Circuit. School of the Americas Watch v. Columbus, No. 02-16886-CC (11th Cir., brief filed Feb. 13, 2003).

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