North Carolina lawmakers announced strict new rules limiting where and how citizens can protest in the state Legislative Building on Thursday, a move many see as an attempt to stifle the progressive “Moral Monday” protests that continue to gain momentum in the Tar Heel state.
During the second day of the state’s 2014 legislative session, the North Carolina Legislative Services Commission, which has not met since 1999, announced a new set of regulations that overhaul building rules unchanged since 1987. Although state Republicans claim the new rules are only meant to lesson “disturbances” so lawmakers can conduct business, the regulations are sure to impact the ongoing Moral Mondays protests, a progressive grassroots movement in North Carolina that sprung up last year in opposition to a series of conservative laws passed by the North Carolina state legislature. Thousands of North Carolinians have expressed their fierce disapproval of the Republican-dominated General Assembly by protesting in and around the state Legislative Building over the past year, with more than 900 people reportedly arrested inside the building’s central rotunda for civil disobedience since April 2013.
But according to the new rules unveiled by the commission, groups are no longer allowed to “disturb, or create an imminent disturbance” at the Legislative Building, and visitors may be asked to leave if they are found to be disturbing “the General Assembly, one of its houses, or its committees, members, or staff in the performance of their duties.” Behaviors said to violate the rules include “singing, clapping, shouting, playing instruments or using sound amplification equipment,” or activities that defined many past Moral Mondays demostrations.
The rules—which were supported by a majority of Republicans but opposed by Democrats—also place limits on where protestors can gather at the General Assembly, especially on the main South entrance—the site of many previous Moral Monday protests. Groups that expect to involve between 25 and 200 people are allowed to reserve space at the South entrance, but the same location “may not be reserved for coordinated activities the person or group reasonably expects will involve 200 or more participants.” By contrast, last year’s Moral Mondays demonstrations drew crowds that numbered in the thousands.
Some North Carolinians are expressing outrage at the announcement, especially Moral Mondays participants. Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP and the person largely responsible for sparking the Moral Mondays movement in the state, blasted the new rules as an attack on civil rights and free speech.
“These changes in the rules that defines acceptable speech as what they consider normal is, we believe, not only a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, but is highly offensive and prejudicial to African Americans, minorities, women, the poor, LGBT people and faith communities who have been historically criticized for being abnormal to the so- called mainstream of our country whenever they have chosen to protest,” Rev. Barber said in a statement released by the NC NAACP. “This attempt to characterize certain speech as abnormal and contrary to civility is a trick as old as when opponents of civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights and LGBT rights accused their neighbors of being too loud or too uncivil when they challenged unjust and mean-spirited laws.”
Sarah Preston, Policy Director at the North Carolina ACLU, echoed Barber’s frustration and argued that the new rules are not only “somewhat arbitrary,” but also fail to address existing issues—namely, the tendency by lawmakers to only punish some people for public disturbances.
“We think that the Legislative Services Commission really missed an opportunity to address issues in the existing rules,” Preston said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “There is some language in there that really invites selective enforcement, and the new rule don’t address that.”
Still others noted that the new rules appear to be a scare tactic meant to weaken the resolve of Moral Mondays protestors. “It’s really designed to have a chilling effect on those who might participate in Moral Monday demonstrations,” Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham, told WNCN News.
But if Republican lawmakers hoped the new rules would dull the fervor of the progressive activists in North Carolina, their plans may very well backfire. Moral Mondays participants were already planning to launch a new round of protests next Monday at the Legislative Building before the strict building regulations were announced, and organizers say the demonstrations will continue as scheduled—possibly even strengthened by frustration over the new rules.
“On Monday, we will dramatize just how dangerous to debate in our democracy this action by [NC House Speaker Thom Tillis] and their allies could be if it is not challenged by a movement,” Barber said.