Right to assemble

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 09:28 AM

This editorial appeared in the News & Record, Greensboro

Wake County District Court Judge Joy Hamilton brushed aside constitutional claims Wednesday and convicted a dozen Moral Monday demonstrators of trespassing and violating legislative building rules. The defendants should prevail on appeal.

One of those found guilty and ordered to pay $100 and court costs was the Rev. William Barber III, president of the state NAACP. He led a series of demonstrations throughout the spring and summer to protest policies enacted by the Republican General Assembly. Hundreds marched outside the legislative building each Monday, and dozens went inside to gather in the second-floor lobby between entrances to the House and Senate chambers. More than 900 arrests followed on charges of trespassing, failing to disperse and breaking legislative rules.

Hamilton dismissed the failing to disperse charges against the 12 in her court and said she found some of the rules "vague, overbroad and confusing."

No wonder, after hearing testimony by General Assembly police Chief Jeff Weaver Tuesday. He couldn't say that anyone incited violence or interfered with legislative business. Defense attorney Scott Holmes asked him if the group broke any rules by praying.

"There is nothing illegal about praying," Weaver answered, "but the fact that they were gathered on the second floor in an area that is not for that purpose."

So, where can people gather to pray in the building? Weaver's inability to draw "bright line" rules prompted Holmes to assert the chief was "making up time and place restrictions by the seat of his pants."

There should have been no arrests. The protests were peaceful. Participants didn't damage property or attempt to occupy the premises or stop lawmakers from entering their chambers and conducting business. They were expressing their views -- and, yes, praying -- inside a government building at a time when it was open to the public.

Holmes cited the state constitution's assurance that the people may "assemble together ... to instruct their representatives." In a public forum, "there was no compelling reason to keep these people out; our constitution invites them in," he said in closing arguments Wednesday.

Some of the 900 demonstrators already have been convicted, while some others have been acquitted. Dozens have agreed to perform community service in exchange for having the charges against them dropped. Those who were found guilty, including the 12 Wednesday, have said they will appeal. That's good, because these are not simple trespassing cases, and higher courts should consider the extent to which the government can punish people who enter its halls to voice dissent. Given the circumstances, it should not punish them at all. These were citizens exercising their rights, not criminal trespassers or anarchists.

We hope no legislative leaders pushed for these arrests, that they were the idea of a security official who was just too eager to maintain an orderly environment. But legislative leaders, for whom Weaver works, did not stop the arrests.

The problem is that the exercise of rights is sometimes disorderly. The people's right to gather in public places means their presence must be tolerated by government officials who would prefer they go away.

Moral Monday protesters did not go away. All North Carolinians, no matter their political views, should stand with them, because all hold the same rights. The courts should defend them.