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Georgia passes laws limiting protests

Sunday, April 18, 2004 · Last updated 10:34 a.m. PT

Georgia passes laws limiting protests

By RUSS BYNUM
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

Robert Randall, organizer for the "G-8 Carnival", a public demonstration of up to 10,000 people during the world leaders' summit in June, stands at one possible location for the protest, April 15, 2004 in Brunswick, Ga. The city of Brunswick passed a new law last month that permits public demonstrations only after organizers agree to numerous conditions and fees. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- Robert Randall never knew free speech could cost so much - in dollars and in compromises - until he tried to organize a large-scale, peaceful demonstration for this summer's G-8 summit.

The coastal city of Brunswick, where Randall hopes to gather up to 10,000 people to protest the world leaders' summit, passed a law last month that places conditions on public demonstrations.

Organizers of protests like Randall's "G-8 Carnival" must put up refundable deposits equal to the city's estimated cost for clean up and police protection. Demonstrations may only last 2 hours, 30 minutes. Signs and banners may not be carried on sticks that might be brandished as weapons. And the signs may not be larger than 2-by-3 feet.

"This law would not exist if the G-8 was not coming here," said Randall, 51, a local therapist who has attended demonstrations since the Vietnam War. "It makes it impossible to express oneself through assembly or speech on public property unless you have money."

Thousands of anti-globalization protesters are expected June 8-10 when President Bush hosts the leaders of Britain, Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Russia on secluded Sea Island.

Brunswick, Savannah and surrounding counties have passed ordinances governing protest permits. The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue, saying the laws "place impermissible limits on free speech."

Observers say the cities' actions fit a national pattern of managing dissent with beefed up laws and police powers that constrict constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly.

The new laws are a response to the violent protests during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Demonstrators are facing some of their toughest restrictions since the 1960s, said Ronald Collins of the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

"Post-Seattle and 9-11, it seems more municipalities are considering measures that may well undermine existing First Amendment law," he said.

Miami banned props such as water pistols, balloons and sticks before demonstrators arrived for a global trade summit in November. The city repealed the law last month in the face of lawsuits.

On Thursday, federal appeals court judges ruled that an Augusta, Ga., ordinance violated the rights of a women's group that sought to protest outside the all-male Augusta National Golf Club during the 2003 Masters golf tournament.

The ordinance, adopted just before the tournament, let police keep protesters a half-mile from the club's gates and required a permit for any assembly of five or more people. The appeals court said the law "creates the opportunity for undetectable censorship."

Activists also have complained that security plans for so-called "free speech zones" at the Democratic Convention in Boston will keep protesters from being seen or heard.

Cities "are choosing sides and what they're doing is trying to silence people from speaking out," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a Washington attorney and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice. "And they're using the law as a political tool to do it."

During the G-8 summit in Georgia, both Brunswick and Savannah expect to see protesters.

Brunswick is the nearest inland community to Sea Island, which will be off limits to demonstrators. Savannah, 60 miles north, will house 5,000 international journalists and dignitaries.

With the summit less than two months away, neither city has approved any permits for demonstrations - in part, activists say, because of steep requirements.

Brunswick requires groups of six or more to apply for permits at least 20 days before an event. The city's ordinance sets no limit on deposits, and says permits may be denied if a demonstration is likely to congest traffic, impede commerce or endanger the public.

Savannah's law is similar but does not specify the size of groups needing permits, which the ACLU says could be applied to one person.

City officials have said that protesters wanting to use public parks will be charged the same fees - $150 to $700 per day - as people renting those spaces for private events such as weddings. Groups of 150 or more must pay maintenance deposits of $1.50 per head.

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson declined to comment, citing the threat of litigation from the ACLU. But City Attorney James Blackburn told the Savannah Morning News the city would review the ordinance in light of the appellate decision on the Augusta lawsuit.

In Brunswick, Randall says he's waiting to find a site for his demonstration before requesting a permit. The city's mayor says the city is trying to help him.

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On The Net:

G8 Summit: http://g8usa.gov/

Brunswick: http://www.brunswickga.org/

Savannah: http://www.ci.savannah.ga.us/cityweb/webdatabase.nsf

G8 Carnival: http://www.g8carnival.org/

American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org/

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