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Judges rule town illegally restricted small group

ATLANTA -- The city of Augusta illegally restricted a small
protest last year against all-male membership at the home of the
Masters, a federal court ruled Thursday.

The National Council of Women's Organizations tried to picket
outside the private Augusta National Golf Club during the
tournament, but local officials cited security concerns and forced
about 50 protesters to move a half-mile away.

Martha Burk, head of the women's group, sued, saying the
decision was based on her group's views. She took special exception
to an ordinance, passed a month before the protest, requiring a
permit for any assembly of five or more people.

In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance was illegal.

"The County cannot seriously believe that political expression
involving as few as five people is likely to disrupt traffic,
disturb the peace, threaten public safety and require advance
notice to public officials," the judges wrote.

Augusta Mayor Bob Young said he was disappointed by the ruling,
adding that it was too soon to know how the city will respond.

"We had hoped to put this behind us," he said.

Last year, Burk's group asked a federal judge to block the
Augusta ordinance to allow it to protest in front of the club. That
request was denied, leading to the appeal.

Burk's group didn't send any protesters to this year's
tournament, citing the restrictive ordinances. But the group might
return to Augusta next spring, she said Thursday.

"Our First Amendment rights have been vindicated," she said.
"I hope the rights of women to walk through those gates as the
equal of men is coming soon."

Augusta National has not had a female among its 300 members
since it opened in 1933. Last year, the issue became incendiary
when club chairman Hootie Johnson said Augusta National would not
be forced to take a female member "at the point of a bayonet."

The golf club was not named in the lawsuit. Augusta National
spokesman Glenn Greenspan called it "a matter for Richmond County
and the city of Augusta."

The court said city officials had too much power to decide who
could protest and who could not, creating "the opportunity for
undetectable censorship."

Judge Paul H. Roney, who cast the dissenting vote, wrote that it
was essential for the city to have notice of any protests so that
it can make "proper logistical arrangements."