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The fight over admitting women into Augusta National Golf Club has morphed into an argument over free speech set to occur today at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At issue is an ordinance of the Augusta-Richmond County Commission that says the local sheriff may deny a demonstration permit to groups whose plans present, in the sheriff’s opinion, “public safety concerns.” Last spring, Augusta Sheriff Ronnie Strength relied on the ordinance to deny a request by the National Council of Women’s Organizations and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to congregate at the front gate of the club during the Masters Tournament. The groups were protesting the club’s all-male membership. According to lawyers for Augusta-Richmond County, there was not enough room to allow the women’s group, Rainbow/PUSH and six other groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to People Against Ridiculous Protests to demonstrate at the main gate. In court briefs, the lawyers said that Strength was particularly concerned about “the potential for dangerous situations developing for the spectators attending the Masters as well as the protesters themselves, and the business persons with vested interests in that locale.” So Strength arranged for the protesters to demonstrate in a field owned by the club that was about 700 yards down the street from the main gate. LEADER: LOCATION DEFLATED PROTEST That location was not close enough for Martha Burk, president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, who sparked the controversy in 2002 by asking Augusta National to admit a female member. Burk said being nearly a half-mile away from the club’s main gate is one reason her protest attracted only about 100 people. “Some folks probably thought, ‘What’s the point?’” she said, emphasizing that her goal was to be close to the people she wanted to influence — the club members and golfers. Lawyers for the city and county estimated in court briefs that 16,000 cars drove past the protest location on the third day of the tournament in just one direction, suggesting the protesters’ message would get wide exposure. But Burk called the number of cars that drove by “irrelevant,” comparing the site where she was allowed to protest to being on a highway that the president of the United States will drive on, as opposed to being at the front gate of the White House. Represented by the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Burk, her group and Rainbow/PUSH claim that the Augusta-Richmond County protest ordinance violates the First Amendment. Among their arguments: The ordinance gives “unbridled discretion” to the sheriff and is “a content-based prior restraint on speech.” AN UNDUE EXALTATION OF RIGHTS Last spring, Chief Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Augusta denied the groups’ request for a preliminary injunction against the ordinance, concluding the groups’ argument had little chance of success. Bowen added, according to the briefs of Augusta-Richmond County, “The effective blocking of the thoroughfare for the virtual entirety of one of four tournament days would result in an unreasonable and undue arrogation of Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, exalting them far above the rights of motorists, pedestrians, and property owners who have an expectation of the orderly flow of traffic in and out of Magnolia Drive and of the benefits which might accrue therefrom.” Today’s argument at the 11th Circuit will be a rematch of sorts in the culture wars. Representing Augusta-Richmond County will be James W. Ellison of the Augusta firm Burnside, Wall, Daniel, Ellison & Revell. Earlier this year, Ellison represented Richmond County in its successful defense of a court seal depicting the Ten Commandments. The ACLU had argued that the seal violated the First Amendment’s ban on state-established religion, but Bowen, and then the 11th Circuit, disagreed. Facing Ellison today will be Sarah M. Shalf, an associate with Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore. They will appear before Judges R. Lanier Anderson III, Rosemary Barkett and Senior Judge Paul H. Roney. The case is Burk v. Augusta-Richmond County, No. 03-11756-D.

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