Thursday, April 10, 2003

Burk looks for legal loophole



By Russ Bynum
The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Martha Burk lost any hope of a court-sanctioned protest outside Augusta National's main gate. Now she has to decide whether to picket a half-mile away or risk arrest.

"This was our last shot," Burk said Wednesday.

A federal appeals court refused to overrule the Augusta sheriff's authority to deny Burk a permit to protest in the thick of golfers, club members and thousands of fans entering the course Saturday for the third round of the Masters.

The ruling by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals came hours before the Masters began this morning.

Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, wanted to place 24 protesters just outside the wrought-iron main gate of Augusta National, with an additional 200 across the street.

She says that's the only way to ensure her protest will be seen by the roughly 300 club members she's pushing to overturn Augusta National's male-only membership policy.

But Sheriff Ronald Strength rejected Burk's request, saying bustling Washington Road is so packed with cars and pedestrians in front of the club that a single protester would be a dangerous distraction.

U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. sided with the sheriff in a decision upheld by the appeals court.

"I'm disappointed that the wall of discrimination is so high down there that local authorities, and even the judges, are willing to conspire with the club, the mayor and the city commission to deny us our free speech rights," Burk said.

Having exhausted her last chance for an appeal before the Saturday protest, Burk is expected to submit to having protesters on a 5.1-acre lot hand-picked by the sheriff and owned by Augusta National.

Pocked with weeds and a few large anthills, the site is about a half-mile from the Augusta National gate, hidden from view by a bend in the road.

But Burk said she and her attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union were also studying a loophole in Augusta's protest ordinance. The law says only groups of five or more need apply for a permit.

So what if she sent four or fewer protesters to the gate?

Strength insisted the numbers don't matter. He reiterated, as he testified in court a week ago, that one protester in the middle of the Masters crowds could pose a safety hazard.

"That is not an option and that strategy is circumventing the law," Strength said. "It's very dangerous and we're not going to allow that."

Asked if he would arrest Burk's protesters if they braved the gate, Strength said, "anybody breaking the law is subject to arrest. ... If we ask folks to move on and they refuse, they are breaking the law."

Burk said her group didn't plan to do anything illegal.

"That said, the sheriff can define anything he wants to define as illegal: someone carrying a sign or someone crossing against the light," she said. "That's why we challenged the ordinance."

Burk and her allies in the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition were the only ones to challenge the sheriff's decision to place all eight groups seeking to protest at the vacant lot away from the course. He also approved a second site farther away for Jackson's group.

They're scheduled to share the vacant lot with opponents of Burk, opponents of Jackson, a group supporting the war in Iraq and a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan that favors Augusta National's all-male stance.

Stretching some 350 yards along Washington Road - the same length as Augusta National's par-4 third hole - the lot has plenty of elbow room even with up to 900 protesters permitted and 100 deputies expected for security.

Sheriff's officials say it's the closest open space available for so many protesters. But Burk, derisively referring to the lot as "that pit," says the site was picked to ensure she gets low exposure.

Few pedestrians trudged through the lot Wednesday during the final practice round. Cars cruised by at the posted speed limit of 45 mph.

The lot faces 13 small homes with blooming dogwoods, and the only nearby businesses are a title pawn shop, barber shop and tiny convenience store clustered on the corner furthest from Augusta National.

Most fans driving to the Masters pass the protest ground by at least a block before parking in one of the strip mall lots across the street from the club's perimeter fence, shrouded by a bamboo thicket.

With the other groups not expected until Saturday, the only protester to show so far has been Todd Manzi, a Floridian and self-appointed Burk nemesis.

Manzi's also leased a parking lot next to the protest grounds to sell T-shirts, buttons, hats and golf balls printed with Burk-bashing slogans. But like the few ticket scalpers on that corner Wednesday, he's struggled to make sales.

"We rented the parking lot and were set and good to go. But there was absolutely no one there," Manzi said.

He still believes it's a fine spot for Burk's protest, but admits "it's a terrible location for selling stuff."

National Council of Women's Organizations: http://www.womensorganizations.org

Masters: http://www.masters.org




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