RALEIGH — People visiting or protesting at the North Carolina Legislative Building face new rules governing where they can gather and what they can do, a change critics say is in direct response to the mass “Moral Monday” protests last year.
The changes approved by the Legislative Services Commission on Thursday tweak the rules pertaining to large gatherings and clarify the penalties for violating the rules.
The commission had not met in 15 years and no building rules had been changed since 1987. The majority of Republicans voted in favor of the rules; Democrats voted against them.
“We all have to agree it is the most open building in state government,” said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the commission’s chairman. “What these rules are designed to do is take away any notion that it’s arbitrary, that it would be enforced differently from group A to group B.”
Moore said the goal was to balance the need for citizens to express grievances to lawmakers, while still allowing lawmakers to conduct business.
Among other things, the new rules ban signs attached to a stick or pole, affixed to any structure or equipment, or used to disturb General Assembly activities. They also require the legislative building to be kept open until 30 minutes after all meetings end for the day, not just House and Senate sessions.
But Democrats said the rules were too vague, passed without public input and were aimed at stifling Moral Monday demonstrations, protests waged during the session by activist groups opposed to the GOP-led legislative agenda.
Protest groups will enter the Legislative Building on Monday to purposely dramatize the effect the new rules have on demonstrations, showing how they stifle the people, said Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP.
The rule updates were based on past rules and those from other state capitol buildings and the U.S. Capitol, according to commission staff.
“No one said current rules were good, right, or constitutional,” said Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, a commission member.
The new rules reserve the space between the street and the South entrance to the building for groups of 200 or fewer.
Moral Monday protests have been traditionally held in Halifax Mall, on the building’s north side. Thousands have regularly attended protests in that space. More than 900 people were arrested while demonstrating in the Legislative Building last year. There are 640 cases still pending in district court and 100 cases in Superior Court, Joyner said.
The rules also open up the Legislative Building’s second floor, where the House and Senate floors and Republican leadership offices are located. But activities that create an “imminent disturbance” are prohibited.
“It still invites that selective enforcement we’ve seen over the years,” said Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina.