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SOA Watch, City of Columbus, Georgia in court

The city of Columbus continues to press for seacrches and other restrictions of Constitutionally-guarenteed rights at SOA demonstrations this weekend.
Posted on Fri, Nov. 15, 2002

SOA Watch, city in court
Staff Writer

Unless the SOA Watch demonstration appears to be turning violent, city officials may be overreacting by enacting its last-minute plan to screen people entering the protest site this weekend, a University of Georgia law professor said Thursday.

Roy Carlson, a member of the university's law school faculty, described the stalemate between SOA Watch organizers and Columbus leaders as "a classic clash of free speech rights versus maintenance of public order."

That stalemate continued Thursday even after a lengthy afternoon meeting involving public safety officials and protest organizers.

Though several points were decided, the Columbus Police Department's use of metal detectors this weekend is still being debated. Unless a compromise is reached this morning, that question will go before U.S. District Judge Clay Land in a 1 p.m. hearing today.

Carlson has followed the history of the annual protest. While he understands the city's desire to preserve law, he added that SOA Watch's ability to assemble and speak should not be threatened.

"If you are in charge of maintaining public order, you don't want public protests -- whether it's the Ku Klux Klan or an anti-war group. Such events make life more complicated for you," Carlson said. "But officials must remember that it is important in a democracy for people to be able to make their views known in a dramatic way. That is our American heritage."

Given SOA Watch's 12-year history of non-violence, the law school professor said new security measures may be going too far.

"Unless SOA Watch is on the cusp of breaking into something violent, these steps may be an overreaction," Carlson said.

Mayor Bobby Peters, Police Chief Willie Dozier and other public safety leaders specified what changes they plan in a meeting with SOA Watch representatives Thursday at the mayor's office.

Peters described how police intend to have nearly a dozen officers with hand-held scanners along Benning Road near the protest at Fort Benning's main gate. Police will create a security perimeter, funneling protesters through the area where the police will be using the metal detectors.

The mayor said this perimeter has been enforced before, a point disputed by protest leaders. "Our position is that this is very different," said Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor representing the SOA Watch.

Peters said police used these same scanners successfully at the Chattahoochee Valley Fair and it did not cause congestion at the gates. He said they will be used both Saturday and Sunday at the area designated as the protest site in a ruling last year by U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth.

"We think we can do what we need to do for safety and security without violating anyone's rights or slowing the flow of people entering the site," said Police Maj. Julius Graham, who will be in charge of the SOA Watch police detail this weekend.

City officials are adamant that protesters will not disrupt traffic on Benning Road this year as they did a year ago when a so-called "Global Village" was built of cardboard in the middle of the roadway. That resulted in 32 arrests several hours after the formal rally was over.

Peters said SOA Watch has been told they must have the area clear by around 5:30 p.m. "We won't be as tolerant as we were last year," he said. "If they refuse to go, they will be arrested."

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