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Critics: Lawmakers trying to stifle protesters

The optics weren’t good for North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature last spring when Moral Monday protesters started showing up as lawmakers met and passed controversial legislation.

What began on April 29 of last year with a few dozen, mostly ministers, praying and asking legislators to meet with them and hear their concerns about the regressive and harmful laws quickly mushroomed to hundreds and then thousands of demonstrators. Seventeen, including leader Rev. William Barber, were arrested that April day for nonviolent civil disobedience, accused of trespassing and failure to disperse at the State Legislative Building.

By July, more than 800 had been been arrested. By the session’s end a few weeks later, the arrests numbered 945.

Republican policymakers including Gov. Pat McCrory lampooned and mocked the protesters, labeling them as mostly outside agitators and not N.C. residents. But that was proved false by media and others.

Clergy were joined by teachers, doctors, students, business people. They were young, old, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American. They spanned economic classes. Even some identifying themselves as Republicans joined the ranks. And they were mostly Tar Heel residents.

By the end of summer, polls showed the protesters were held in higher esteem than lawmakers.

So, this should come as no surprise: On Thursday, the second day of the short session of the N.C. General Assembly, the Legislative Services Commission met for the first time in 15 years to change the rules governing public access to the legislature. The changes they passed target Moral Monday protests directly and place limits on such gatherings.

One rule change specifies behaviors that could violate legislative rules and trigger arrests, including “singing and clapping,” behaviors Moral Monday protesters engaged in regularly last year. Another rule change prohibits signs on “handsticks“ or signs that “disturb” legislators. Another places size limits on gatherings outside the General Assembly.

Critics said the changes are attempts to stifle speech. “Republicans don’t want to hear from the public or allow them to petition their representatives,” said House Democratic Leader Larry D. Hall. “It is shocking that the only response given to thousands of citizens expressing their disagreement with the Republican agenda is to try to silence them.”

North Carolina Central University Law professor Irv Joyner, though, pinpoints the constitutional problem with the changes. Said Joyner: “The new rules are vague, overbroad and are incapable of a consistent application. For example, the definitions for what constitutes a ‘disturbance’ and what will ‘imminently disturb’ legislators and/or their staff members have no reasoned definition and, therefore, are fatally flawed.”

Ironically, lawmakers had one legitimate reason for modifying the rules. It came from judges who tried those arrested during the Moral Monday protests. They observed that the rules leading to the arrests of protesters were full of complexities and too often vague. That vagueness prompted prosecutors to drop charges against dozens of defendants.

As of late March, more than 600 cases remained to be tried. Of the 137 cases that had gone to trial by then, 24 defendants were found not guilty, 53 were convicted of at least one charge, and all charges were dropped against 57 of the demonstrators arrested May 20.

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the House Rules chairman and a member of the Legislative Services Commission, had said earlier this week that the panel needed to make changes to “make sure the rules we have are fair.”

Some changes do that, including rules specifying that use of the legislative building can’t be denied based on what the person or group has to say or allowing the public to visit the second floor of the building. But others are not fair; in fact, they seem to invite selective enforcement.

And far from bringing needed clarity to some of their rules, lawmakers made changes that appear to promote more vagueness.

Several of these changes also invite a court challenge for free speech infringement.

Far too many N.C. lawmakers made it clear last year that they didn’t want to hear from citizens who opposed their agenda. In fact, one lawmaker said as much, telling a constituent to sit down and shut up.

If these rule changes are attempts to intimidate and silence dissenters, it is cowardly and unacceptable. On Monday, I expect Moral Monday protesters will be back, and lawmakers will find out such tactics won’t work.

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