'Flaggers' See Threat to Free Speech; Proposal Would Give Parks Five Days to Approve a Permit to Protest; Confederate Enthusiasts Say Perdue Is Trying to Avoid Their Criticism

Article excerpt

Byline: 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. …