By Corey Friedman
June 16, 2014
A judge dealt a well-deserved setback to thin-skinned legislative leaders seeking to restrict Moral Monday demonstrations at the North Carolina General Assembly last week, but the progressive protests’ conservative targets don’t seem to be the only ones trying to stifle dissent.
Carolina Rising, a new advocacy group pleased with the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s rightward shift, says the NAACP security detail forcibly removed its members from Halifax Mall outside the legislative building June 9. If that’s true, it paints Moral Monday leaders as hypocrites, and it raises a series of troubling questions.
Folks from Carolina Rising attended the Moral Monday protest to open a dialogue about the state’s conservative policies and their effects. They brought sun-shaped stress balls bearing the printed message “Jobs up, unemployment down” and offered demonstrators free bottles of Sunny Delight and Sunkist. The group’s president, Dallas Woodhouse, said the solar theme was designed to offer protesters “the hand of friendship and a little sunshine.”
Woodhouse wrote in a letter to state NAACP President William Barber that his security team “claimed the entire area and forced me away.” Woodhouse used the phrase “forcibly remove,” which suggests physical contact, though he didn’t elaborate on how Carolina Rising supporters were ejected.
We doubt sincerely that Barber’s bodyguards, whether private security workers or off-duty law enforcement officers, had legal justification to put their hands on citizens engaging in a peaceful counterprotest. If members of his group really were manhandled, Woodhouse may have a strong case for misdemeanor simple assault charges or a cause for civil action.
In his letter to Barber, Woodhouse sought only the same right to assemble that the NAACP and other Moral Monday protest groups enjoy.
“Clearly, Rev. Barber, to make so much noise about your right to access ‘The People’s House,’ and then to forcibly remove other citizens from the People’s Lawn is hypocritical and unchristian,” he wrote. “I hope when we return, you and your expansive security detail will simply treat us better.”
Late last week, Wake County Superior Court Judge Carl Fox struck down some of the new public access rules a legislative panel enacted for the state capital complex and grounds. Lawmakers had sought to ban protest signs and restrict speech above “a normal tone of voice,” an imprecise and subjective criterion to be sure.
Fox ruled that some of the rules for protests, demonstrations and public visits were vague and overbroad. A law isn’t legitimate when its terms are so hazy that a person never really knows whether he or she’s in compliance. That encourages selective enforcement, intimidation and self-censorship. If we can’t understand the law, how can we ever hope to follow it?
We’re glad to see Fox taking a red pen to the new rulebook. It’s clear that General Assembly leaders have grown intolerant of the Moral Monday crowds and are taking steps to rein them in.
The NAACP challenged the legislative building code of conduct in court, citing the First Amendment. For that, we applaud the organization. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that only narrow time, place and manner restrictions can be placed on protest speech.
If Carolina Rising’s account is credible, the same group working vigorously to defend speech, assembly and petition rights for progressive protesters would deny them to conservative counterdemonstrators. We hope this was a thoughtless mistake rather than a calculated maneuver.
The First Amendment isn’t a tool for political opportunism to be trotted out only when it’s convenient. It’s a set of rights that applies equally to Americans of all viewpoints and all persuasions.
Moral Monday crowds have every right to voice their displeasure with the General Assembly. And Carolina Rising has just as much right to present its opposing view.