(*Editors Note | Is the 4th Amendment dead? Today in Columbus, Georgia thousands of protesters will have to go through checkpoints and be searched individualy with metal detectors before being permited to excercise their first amendment rights and a peaceful, non violent rally on a public street. What happened to our 4th ammendment protections?-- sg)
Judge Dismisses SOA Watch Claims
Police Allowed to Use Hand-Held Metal Detectors During Protest
BY RICHARD HYATT
Seesawing between the city's interest in public safety and an individual's right to speak, U.S. District Judge Clay Land ruled Friday that using metal detectors will not violate the constitutional rights of protesters at this weekend's SOA Watch demonstration.
His decision came after a four-hour hearing in which Columbus police officers -- describing anarchists in black masks and frenzied women bearing their breasts -- testified that the nonviolent protest is growing more extreme and has the potential "to go over the top" toward violence.
Acknowledging the conflicting interests law enforcement faces, Land said city officials have crafted a narrowly tailored plan that protects the public and ensures the demonstrators' rights to express their views.
This means that thousands expected to crowd into the streets in front of Fort Benning's Main Gate today and Sunday will first pass through police checkpoints on Benning Road. Officers will check each person entering the protest site with a hand-held metal detector, which the judge said is permissible within the constraints of the First Amendment.
"This has nothing to do with the First Amendment or the SOA Watch message," Police Chief Willie Dozier testified. "This is about public safety."
SOA Watch attorneys argued that the group has no history of violence, that past arrests involving demonstrators weren't violent and that in 12 years of protesting, no weapons have been reported or seized.
"Certainly these are troubled times, but there were troubled times a year ago after 9/11," SOA Watch attorney Gerry Weber said in his closing remarks. "In this case, they want to change the rules for this one group."
Columbus Mayor Bobby Peters said the security plan will be "a limited intrusion" for people attending the rallies today and Sunday.
"Protesters won today, too. They just don't realize it," Peters said.
SOA Watch has gathered here since 1990, protesting the presence at Fort Benning of a school they claim is involved in the training of soldiers that have participated in atrocities throughout Latin America. Originally called the School of Americas, it reopened a year ago as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Program Director Jeff Winder testified that SOA Watch wants to shut down the school and to "change the foreign policy it represents."
Winder, 34, and a father of three small children, lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He said he feels safe bringing his family to the protest.
"My children couldn't go out to recess for weeks because of the sniper. I feel safer here than practically anywhere else," he said.
Protesters attend nonviolent classes and are asked to adhere to the group's code of conduct -- including a nonviolent pledge.
"We should not be viewed as criminals because we choose to protest," Winder testified.
Land asked why that oath does not include a pledge not to break the law.
"You're not attacking an unjust law as people in the civil rights movement did," the judge said.
"We're not supportive of a flagrant disregard of the law," Winder replied. "But there are occasions when breaking the law advances our cause without harming any persons."
In his ruling, Land referred to the law-breaking Winder mentioned and said while the protest is nonviolent, that does not mean they have a history of peacefulness or lawfulness.
Bill Quigley, a Loyola University of New Orleans law professor, served as co-counsel with Weber. He called Dozier as a witness and asked the police chief how the department deals with other local events.
"The Fountain City Classic is Saturday at the stadium. How many people will be there?" Quigley asked.
Dozier estimated a crowd between 12,000 and 14,000.
"Will you have a perimeter of armed police officers?"
"No," the chief said.
"The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is at Legacy Hall Saturday night. Will you use metal detectors on everyone at that event?" asked Quigley.
Dozier said they would not.
The attorney asked if it was city policy to use such measures at high school football games, at Golden Park, at parades, at malls, at churches and at restaurants. Such security measures are not used at such venues, Dozier said.
Police Capt. Mac Todd has been at 11 SOA Watch protests -- including the first when less than a dozen people participated. He demonstrated the hand-held metal detector in court -- even on Quigley. He said it will go off only if the person is carrying a large metal object such as a weapon
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