By Chad Nance
You’re a North Carolina politician and you’re being investigated by the SBI- what do you do, hotshot? Put the SBI under your control. You’re a North Carolina politician and the people you have put in charge of the State’s DHHS, DENR, and Board of Elections have overseen disaster after disaster- what do you do, hotshot? Blame the Feds. You’re getting yourself roughed up and challenged by a protest movement organized and populated by people who are angry at your policies- what do you do, hotshot? Change the rules to make sure that those demonstrations cannot continue in the same way.
In a quiet corner of the state government called the Legislative Services Commission, new rules about access to the North Carolina’s legislative building are being rewritten for the first time since 1987. In a move clearly aimed at the Moral Monday movement, Republicans on the committee hope to limit any demonstration or event on the property of the legislative building to 200 people or fewer. With the Moral Monday demonstrations bringing tens of thousands of protesters from around North Carolina, restricting the event to 200 people would effectively shut down the movement and the demonstrations that have been pulling in reams of bad press for the Republican supermajority and McCrory Administration since they began in 2013. According to some lawmakers, these changes were instigated by a judge’s admonishment that the old rules needed clarification. This request was made during a series of trials for Moral Monday arrestees.
Republicans had to give up one of their wish list items; their attempt to keep citizens from having free access to the second floor was put into one draft, then removed. What does remain, however, is language that is directed squarely at the Moral Monday demonstrators. The rules now state, “Visitors to the complex may not disturb or act in a manner that will imminently disturb the General Assembly, one of its houses, or its committees, members, or staff in the performance of their duties.”
What might our state legislators find “disturbing”? The rules provide what the legislature calls “non-exclusive examples of behaviors.” Translated from the language of politics this means, “We reserve the right to add any new thing we want to, whenever we want to, and there isn’t anything you can do about it.”
That list includes the following:
“Making noise that is loud enough to impair others’ ability to conduct a conversation in a normal tone of voice while in the general vicinity and may include singing, clapping, shouting, playing instruments, or using sound amplification equipment while inside either the State Legislative building or the Legislative Office Building.”
Just so happens that these are many of the activities undertaken by those who have participated in the Moral Monday Movement up until this point. What an absolute coincidence that the very peaceful methods being employed to publicly embarrass and push back against the Republican Supermajority show up in this “non-exclusive” list.
Now if your goal is to create as much room as possible for legislators to complain about protesters on any number of points, then the portion of the rules addressing signs is a marvel of open-ended opportunity for on the spot interpretation and application.
“A sign that is used to disturb or used in a manner that will imminently disturb the General Assembly, one of its houses, or its committees, members, or staff in the performance of their duties will be confiscated. Nothing in this Rule limits the authority of the presiding officer or chair of a committee from maintaining order in the chamber, the galleries, or a committee meeting.”
There is nothing like ambiguity and near dictatorial discretion when it comes to defend yourself by your fellow North Carolinians as they peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. With this kind of latitude left in the rules it will apparently fall back on the antiquated Supreme Court notion about pornography… basically I can’t tell you what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it. Translated from politics into people-speak it essentially means, “Trust Me”.
The real shot comes later. That is where the proposed rules read:
“A person or group who wishes to reserve space for coordinated activities that the person or group reasonably expects will involve more than 25 but less than 200 participants to engage in making a speech, or holding a rally, protest, vigil, or press conference may apply to the Legislative Services Officer to use the area between Jones Street and the south entrance to the State Legislative Building. No other location in the Legislative complex may be used or reserved for this purpose.”
And there you go. As long as the Moral Monday Movement can limit itself to under 200 demonstrators at any one time, they are welcome to apply for a permit. There was a time when the North Carolina State Legislative Building was known as “The people’s house.” Those days, apparently, are long gone.