A bill that would have stiffened penalties for certain types of protest died in committee Tuesday.
By a 6-5 vote, the members of the N.C. House Judiciary II committee chose not to send House Bill 249 – the “Economic Terrorism” bill – to the full House for a vote.
The bill would have created a new category of offense – “economic terrorism.” It would have included forms of protest that “intimidates the civilian population,” or “seeks to influence, through intimidation,” local, state or federal government bodies and which “impedes or disrupts the regular course of business” and does damage of at least $1,000. Under the bill the category of crime would have been a Class H felony with a sentence of four to 25 months.
Protesters who committed lesser offenses would have faced heavier charges under the bill as well. Those blocking roads while part of a “riot or other unlawful assembly” would have faced Class A1 misdemeanor charges and could have been civilly liable for costs involved in responding.
Those participating in passive sit-in protests now face second degree trespassing charges – but under the bill even they would have faced stiffer Class 1 Misdemeanor charges.
Bill sponsors Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) and John Blust (R-Guilford) said the bill was primarily inspired by mass demonstrations in Charlotte last year after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
““This bill does not get rid of any freedom of speech,” Torbett said. “It does not remove your lawful right to protest. It does not remove any lawful right to demonstrate against things you might think need to be demonstrated against.”
Torbett acknowledged that most of the already illegal behaviors described in the bill are covered by existing laws, but said he felt the need to “ratchet up” penalties because of an increase in the number and intensity of protests.
That led critics to ask whether the real target of the bill were protests like those over the controversial House Bill 2 and the continuing Moral Monday protests, both of which have featured sit-ins and have seen demonstrators arrested in the capitol.
“What you have here is a direct threat to civil liberties – the freedoms of speech and assembly – of everyone in this country, on the one side and the other side, ” said Rep. Henry Michaux (D-Durham).
Michaux said that during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement he was guilty of all of the things outlined in the bill and that he and those who protested with him had faced the consequences under existing law for demonstrating for things in which they deeply believed. The only reason for making the existing laws even more harsh toward protesters is to create a chilling effect on protest itself, Michaux said. Seeking to do that while doing nothing to protect the rights of protesters who have already faced abuse is unconscionable, he said.
“This bill that you have here is a piece of abomination that should be confined to the streets of hell forever,” Michaux said.
Republicans on the committee had their own qualms with the bill.
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) said the title “economic terrorism” was “unnecessarily provocative.”
“We just didn’t need to get into a discussion of terrorism in this age. We could have framed it in a different fashion and not had the reaction we had,” McGrady said.
That reaction included more than 2,000 e-mails against the bill, many prompted by organized opposition by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
McGrady said he believed existing law was sufficient to deal with most of what is dealt with in the bill.
Rep. Dana Bumgardner (R-Gaston) agreed, saying that though he too was concerned with violent protest existing law can deal with it — if it is properly applied. Failure to apply the law to these problems isn’t a failure of statute but a failure of leadership, Bumgardner said – and the overly broad language of HB249 was not the answer.
Speaking against the bill, Chatham County resident Vicki Boyer said the broad, vague language of the bill “could be used to shut down every basketball celebration that has ever happened on Franklin Street.”
Torbett and Blust were both agitated by the bipartisan resistance to the bill. Torbett said he could only conclude that those opposing the bill must condone violent protest and have no intention of addressing it — a comment at which fellow Republicans uncomfortable with the bill rankled.
“Maybe this isn’t perfect language, but we have to do something,” Blust said.
A majority of the committee disagreed that that something was House Bill 249. Failing to make crossover this week, it is – without a last minute resurrection as part of another bill – dead this session.