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Charlotte Observer: New rules governing legislative building access, protests “vague” and “unacceptable”

Moral MondaysWith the Moral Monday movement set to resume Monday, state legislators took the unusual step this week of  advancing new rules that would address building access and behaviors that could be viewed as creating a “disturbance.”

Rep. Tim Moore has said these “common sense” changes are intended to allow legislators to carry on with their work while providing fulling public access to citizens.

Charlotte Observer associate editor Fannie Flono writes in today’s paper that lawmakers who saw their image battered in the press and in the polls after dozens of Moral Monday protests last session, are doing themselves no favor by rolling out these new rules. Flono explains:

‘One rule change specifies behaviors that could violate legislative rules and trigger arrests, including “singing and clapping,” behaviors Moral Monday protesters engaged in regularly last year. Another rule change prohibits signs on “handsticks“ or signs that “disturb” legislators. Another places size limits on gatherings outside the General Assembly.

Critics said the changes are attempts to stifle speech. “Republicans don’t want to hear from the public or allow them to petition their representatives,” said House Democratic Leader Larry D. Hall. “It is shocking that the only response given to thousands of citizens expressing their disagreement with the Republican agenda is to try to silence them.”

North Carolina Central University Law professor Irv Joyner, though, pinpoints the constitutional problem with the changes. Said Joyner: “The new rules are vague, overbroad and are incapable of a consistent application. For example, the definitions for what constitutes a ‘disturbance’ and what will ‘imminently disturb’ legislators and/or their staff members have no reasoned definition and, therefore, are fatally flawed.”

Ironically, lawmakers had one legitimate reason for modifying the rules. It came from judges who tried those arrested during the Moral Monday protests. They observed that the rules leading to the arrests of protesters were full of complexities and too often vague. That vagueness prompted prosecutors to drop charges against dozens of defendants.

As of late March, more than 600 cases remained to be tried. Of the 137 cases that had gone to trial by then, 24 defendants were found not guilty, 53 were convicted of at least one charge, and all charges were dropped against 57 of the demonstrators arrested May 20.

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the House Rules chairman and a member of the Legislative Services Commission, had said earlier this week that the panel needed to make changes to “make sure the rules we have are fair.”

Some changes do that, including rules specifying that use of the legislative building can’t be denied based on what the person or group has to say or allowing the public to visit the second floor of the building. But others are not fair; in fact, they seem to invite selective enforcement.

And far from bringing needed clarity to some of their rules, lawmakers made changes that appear to promote more vagueness.

Several of these changes also invite a court challenge for free speech infringement.

Far too many N.C. lawmakers made it clear last year that they didn’t want to hear from citizens who opposed their agenda. In fact, one lawmaker said as much, telling a constituent to sit down and shut up.

If these rule changes are attempts to intimidate and silence dissenters, it is cowardly and unacceptable. On Monday, I expect Moral Monday protesters will be back, and lawmakers will find out such tactics won’t work.’

You can read Flono’s full editorial here.

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