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G-8 Protest Organizer Finds Hurdles on Path to a Permit

Reprinted from Associated Press

The coastal city of Brunswick, where Mr. Randall hopes to gather up to 10,000 people to protest the meeting of Group of 8, passed a law last month that placed conditions on public demonstrations.

Organizers must put up refundable deposits equal to the city’s estimated cost for cleanup and police protection. Demonstrations may last only 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 Mr. 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 antiglobalization protesters are expected June 8-10 when President Bush plays host to the leaders of Britain, Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Russia on secluded Sea Island, which is near Brunswick.

Savannah, Brunswick 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.”

Some opposed to the laws say the cities’ actions fit a national pattern of managing dissent with stronger 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, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Demonstrators are facing some of their toughest restrictions since the 1960’s, 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,” Mr. Collins said.

Miami banned items like water pistols, balloons and sticks before demonstrators arrived at 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 The city repealed the law last month in the face of lawsuits.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.

Cities are ”trying to silence people from speaking out,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a Washington lawyer and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice. ”And they’re using the law as a political tool to do it.”

Brunswick is the nearest inland community to Sea Island, which will be off limits to demonstrators. Savannah, 60 miles north, will house journalists and dignitaries. With the summit less than two months away, neither city has approved permits for demonstrations.

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 A.C.L.U. 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. Groups of 150 or more must pay maintenance deposits of $1.50 per head.

Mayor Otis Johnson of Savannah declined to comment, citing the threat of litigation from the civil liberties union. 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, Mr. Randall said he was waiting to find a site for his demonstration before requesting a permit. The mayor says the city is trying to help him.