That pesky First Amendment

Two weeks ago, in an interview with CL, Glynn County Attorney Gary Moore explained why county lawmakers there, as well as legislators in the city of Brunswick, have adopted ordinances that strictly control how government property is used for any public gathering.Fearing G-8 Summit protesters would damage public land, officials have approved ordinances that demand would-be protesters indemnify the local government, pay security deposits and even bear the cost of any cleanup associated with the event. What's more, the ordinances give officials the right to restrict permits for any number of reasons, including if the gathering might congest traffic, disturb the peace or "burden lawful commerce."

"I don't know of anyone who has the right to come in and saddle taxpayers with the financial burden," Moore said.

To the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Glynn County and Brunswick Monday, security deposits and bills for cleanup amount to a tax on free speech.

"There's an increasing perception that peaceful protesters are somehow a threat," says Gerry Weber, the ACLU's legal director for Georgia. "That's the sort of perception that local governments have in a post-9/11 world. This case is about dispelling that perception."

Weber's argument is that the Brunswick and Glynn ordinances are violations of the constitutional rights of not just the protesters, but anyone who must go through the onerous steps necessary to get a permit to use public land. So far, activists eager to organize near Sea Island a "Fair World Fair" — an educational counterpoint to the G-8 discussions — have come up empty in their attempts to secure a city or county park.

The ACLU's case is bolstered by a recent decision that ruled unconstitutional an Augusta ordinance that was drafted to prevent protests against last year's Masters tournament. Much of the Brunswick and Glynn ordinances are based on that Augusta rule, but Moore says there's a crucial difference — the ordinances in coastal Georgia apply to any gathering, and aren't specific to any time. Still, Weber is confident.

"We have a very strong case. We had a strong case before the Augusta ruling. We have a stronger one now. The real question is how quick we can get a resolution and how forthcoming these places will be in giving these people a place to speak their mind."

Calls to Moore seeking comment on the ACLU lawsuit were not returned by deadline.

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