For legislators, handcuffing Cooper wasn’t enough

The Observer editorial board

Day of tension as special session closes

Protesters crowded the N.C. General Assembly as legislators pushed through bills limiting powers of Governor-elect Roy Cooper during a special session.
Up Next
Protesters crowded the N.C. General Assembly as legislators pushed through bills limiting powers of Governor-elect Roy Cooper during a special session.

You almost can’t blame the North Carolina legislature for shutting the public out of the House and Senate and arresting a reporter trying to cover their sausage-making. If you were passing this kind of legislation and pulling these kinds of tricks, you wouldn’t want the public watching either.

If the legislature is willing to undercut the results of a free and fair election, it certainly has no qualms ignoring the First Amendment. So this week it wasn’t sufficient to handcuff Gov.-elect Roy Cooper before he even takes office; it also had to handcuff Joe Killian.

Killian is a reporter. He covers the legislature as part of his job. He was in the House gallery Thursday night when protesters began chanting and yelling. The public was ordered to leave, including the media and others who were not being disruptive.

“I said, ‘I can’t do my job that way,’” Killian told the Observer editorial board Friday. “I said, ‘I won’t be leaving; I’m going to sit here quietly and politely and cover the news.’”

The Capitol Police handcuffed him and took him away. He faces charges of trespassing.

That should offend Americans of any political stripe. That legislators – elected by the people, paid by the people and working on behalf of the people – would arrest someone doing his job of reporting on their work to the people, is an offense to what this country is all about.

To be sure, some people protesting at the General Assembly on Thursday and Friday deserved to be arrested, and dozens were. They practiced civil disobedience, yelling and chanting in the House and Senate chambers, preventing legislators from doing their (wrong-headed) work. Protesters who continually defied police orders surely knew that being charged was part of the deal.

But legislators and police have to be able to distinguish between disruptive protesters and other members of the public who are not making trouble and who, in some cases, are merely doing their jobs. It’s a distinction lost on GOP Chairman Robin Hayes and the Republican leadership. Any member of the public who wanted to watch her elected officials at work was blocked from doing so for much of Thursday and Friday.

The legislature’s clampdown on the public is of questionable legality. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects not only the right to speak and write but to hear and receive information in public places. That was blocked in Raleigh this week, also arguably violating the state’s open meetings law.

That question in this case might never go to court. But something else probably will: Legislators stripped the governor’s office of much of its already-limited power, including by removing much of its appointment power. The N.C. Supreme Court sided earlier this year with the governor in a different balance-of-power case. Lawmakers probably just invited a second challenge.

That the vacillating Gov. Pat McCrory, who fought legislators to protect gubernatorial power, could conclude his single term by signing restrictions on it is depressingly fitting.