Proposal would give parks five days to approve a permit to protest; Confederate enthusiasts say Perdue is trying to avoid their criticism.
By BRIAN BASINGER, The Times-Union
ATLANTA — Some of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s harshest political critics say the free speech rights of all Georgians are in jeopardy because of a proposed policy change now pending before the agency that oversees the state’s parks and historic sites.
Under existing rules, members of the public who want to protest or hand out literature at one of the state’s 63 official parks or historic sites must first obtain a permit from the Department of Natural Resources.
Officials are currently required to issue or deny the permit "without reasonable delay."
However, Department of Natural Resources board members are considering whether to change the policy’s language. New wording would give the divisional director of the parks and historic sites up to five days to review permit applications from groups of 11 or more people who want to engage in "First Amendment activities." Groups of 10 or fewer would get their permit decisions within 48 hours from the individual park’s manager.
The proposal would do away with the language requiring a permit ruling "without reasonable delay" — and that has some people fuming.
Dan Coleman, spokesman for the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he worries officials could run out the clock on a permit application, stalling their ruling until after an event that protesters were hoping to attend.
"This is shameless. They can wait five days until after the event is over. That’s pretty slick," said Coleman, one of many Confederate heritage advocates still angry at the governor over last year’s referendum on the state flag.
Department of Natural Resources officials say they have never played games with the permitting process and add there is no reason to believe they would do so if new rules are adopted.
But if an event is scheduled fewer than five days in advance, protesters might not be able to request a permit in time.
Perdue outrages ‘flaggers’
Perdue, a Republican, rode to victory in 2002 over incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, partly because of Perdue’s pledge to hold a public vote on the state flag. Although he never promised which flag designs would be in the referendum, many Perdue backers assumed they’d get to vote on whether to bring back the 1956 state flag, which prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem.
In early 2001, Barnes persuaded leaders in the General Assembly to replace the 1956 flag and fly a new banner that minimized the Confederate symbol. Many believe that contributed to Barnes’ failure to win re-election.
However, when Perdue ended up giving his endorsement to a flag referendum in 2003 that didn’t include the ’56 banner as a choice, Confederate enthusiasts became outraged and have since protested the governor throughout the state.
Among the places where so-called "flaggers" have sought to protest Perdue was at the Little White House State Historic Site, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt built in 1932 near Warm Springs.
Tim Pilgrim, secretary of the Southern Heritage Political Action Committee, said he believes the proposed permit change pending before the DNR board is an attempt to silence the "flaggers" who still harbor bitterness toward Perdue.
Pilgrim said his fellow Confederate enthusiasts credit themselves with preventing Barnes from campaigning as freely as he would have liked in 2002.
"We kept him from getting out and politicking," Pilgrim said.
Pilgrim now worries the state wants to stop a repeat performance with the current governor in 2006.
"Sonny Perdue knows that it’s happening to him and it’s going to happen to him next year," Pilgrim said of the flagger protests.
Officials deny targeting group
Officials at both Department of Natural Resources and the governor’s office have emphatically insisted that the proposed rule change isn’t meant to target a specific group.
Kim Hatcher, Department of Natural Resources’ public affairs coordinator, said the changes are an attempt to mirror rules adopted by the federal park system after a lawsuit in 2000.
Hatcher added that the Georgia Attorney General’s office had advised the department to make the changes in 2000, but the issue fell to the side for the last five years because of "high staff turnover" at the Department of Natural Resources.
Officials further dismissed suggestions by the flaggers that Perdue is at all involved in the issue.
"The governor is not even aware of this rule change," Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick said. "We would never want to limit anybody’s First Amendment rights."
When asked to name what kinds of groups have been known to apply for First Amendment permits at state parks, Department of Natural Resources officials said there is no department database of permit applications.
Still, one example did come to mind.
"The only instance I can think of is that we have had a number of flag protesters come to an event where the governor would be at," Hatcher said.
Frankie Mewborn, manager for the Little White House State Historic Site, said flaggers are the only people to request permits at his site during his eight years in charge. The groups came to protest both Barnes and Perdue during separate events over a period of years.
"They were very orderly and very kind," Mewborn said. "They were basically expressing their concerns about the flag."
Other historic site managers told similar stories in recent interviews.
ACLU: Law needs ‘tweaking’
Coleman, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he is worried about the permit proposal because it would affect every person who wants to engage in free speech activities at a state park.
"This is not a flag issue for me," he said. "This is a constitutional rights issue. If they pass this kind of rule, it’s going to affect everybody that is trying to have their voices heard."
Gerry Weber, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, recently reviewed the Department of Natural Resources’ existing permit rules, as well as the proposed changes.
He said the current rules appear to be out of date with at least one federal court ruling handed down since 2000.
A 2004 case from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta prevents governments from requiring a permit for a single person who wants to engage in free speech activities on public land. The current rules would require even a lone protester to apply for permission to stand in a state park with a sign or hand out literature.
Weber also pointed out that permit rules are supposed to allow exceptions for spontaneous protests, such as a demonstration that comes after war breaks out.
"It needs some tweaking to be more sound," Weber said of the DNR regulations.
Hatcher, the DNR public affairs coordinator, said the agency’s board can still modify the rule changes. The board also hopes to get public comment on the proposed language during a public hearing May 5 at the DNR’s headquarters in Atlanta.
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