Hasty passage of “anti-riot” legislation tramples free speech in multiple ways

By: - February 10, 2023 5:59 am
NC House Speaker Tim Moore
House Speaker Tim Moore is the chief sponsor of House Bill 40

Of all the protections enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, none stands above the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to speak freely and to dissent.

It therefore stands to reason that any effort by elected officials to place curbs on these rights must be viewed with great skepticism and only approached with the utmost caution.

And it’s in light of this fact that the process employed by the North Carolina House this week in swiftly advancing a bill to increase penalties under the state’s so-called “anti-rioting” law constituted an especially egregious act.

As numerous advocates have argued and/or attempted to argue, the legislation raises some very serious concerns. The following, for instance, is from a release distributed by the government watchdog group, Democracy North Carolina:

Those lobbying against HB40 urged lawmakers to first and foremost oppose the bill, or in the absence of opposition, adopt amendments for the bill, including 1) removing the requirement to have a judge, instead of a magistrate, decide whether to release those who get arrested while protesting, leading to longer waits in jail, and 2) increasing the property damage amount needed to receive a felony charge from $1,500 to $5,000. The House adopted one amendment to increase the amount to $2,500 and shorten the wait time period to 24 hours.

“Regardless of the intent of this bill, HB 40 will disproportionately harm Black and brown North Carolinians due to the wide discretion being given to law enforcement and the over-policing that already exists in our communities. Black North Carolinians in 44 counties are currently three times more likely to be disenfranchised than their white counterparts,” said Carol Moreno Cifuentes, Policy and Program Manager at Democracy NC. “North Carolina’s current rioting law is similar to the federal anti-riot statute, which the 9th Circuit and 4th Circuit Court of Appeals have already ruled unconstitutional for being overly broad and vague. This bill also allows anybody who claims their property was damaged to sue those they believe responsible for up to three times the cost to repair damages. If a driver is near a protest, will they now be able to argue that someone standing nearby damaged their car? Finally, the bill will have a disparate impact in smaller rural counties where finding a judge to determine the pre-trial release will be more difficult, leading people to be held in jails that are at times already overcrowded. We ask lawmakers to oppose this bill in its entirety or to make amendments to aid in minimizing harm to our most disenfranchised communities.”

Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes)

Are all of the concerns voiced by Moreno and other critics completely valid? Probably, but it would be hard to say for sure.

Normally, when you’re mucking around with the right to free speech and protest, it’s imperative to let everyone have their say — critics and supporters — and to only proceed with extreme care after constitutional experts have weighed in and thoroughly vetted every possible implication of the proposal.

Unfortunately, that’s not how state House Republican leaders roll these days. Instead, they rammed the bill through two committees and two House floor votes in just a few hours. Public commenters were given a paltry two minutes to speak. Some were cut off mid-sentence in the House Judiciary 2 Committee by chair, Rep. Sarah Stevens.

And this is just wrong.

The bottom line: What are GOP legislators afraid of? If the law in question really needs revisions or an update, the least they could do is to have the courage and integrity to do so in an open, deliberate, and transparent manner. Sadly however, as is so often their wont, respect for free speech — even in the consideration of legislation designed to regulate it — is not a priority for North Carolina House Republicans.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.