Cease prosecuting Moral Monday arrests

January 25, 2014 

More than 900 protesters were arrested during Moral Monday demonstrations at the N.C. Legislative Building last summer.

TRAVIS LONG - TLONG@NEWSOBSRVER.COM

With each new case, with each new ruling, the ridiculous prosecutions of Moral Monday protesters who rattled the last session of the N.C. General Assembly look like wasted time and money.

There were 945 arrests in the course of protests, peacefully conducted, in the Legislative Building over a woefully misguided and mean-spirited agenda pushed by right-wing Republican legislative leaders. The protesters’ cause was just: They opposed cuts to public education, voter suppression laws, tax cuts for the wealthy, reductions in unemployment benefits and the refusal to expand Medicaid.

Republican leaders should have been given pause by the fact that thousands of people started showing up behind the government complex in downtown Raleigh to make their feelings known. In the course of speeches and songs inside the building, hundreds paid the price for their beliefs by being arrested.

But these prosecutions have become the Swiss cheese of justice. Last week prosecutors announced plans to dismiss dozens of Moral Monday cases because of lack video evidence that specific protesters broke the law. There are also questions about the murkiness of the law on trespassing regarding public areas and whether the arrests violated both tradition and the First Amendment.

Consider Judge Joyce Hamilton, a former Wake County district court judge hired by the court system to help with hundreds of trials. She told prosecutors and defense attorneys back in November that she found Legislative Building rules that banned signs and placards unconstitutional because they were vague. The judge added that she had in fact appeared at a rally at the legislature long ago for the Equal Rights Amendment and that there were no arrests.

Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby, charged with prosecuting the cases because they came about in his jurisdiction, suggested to the General Assembly police that they issue citations to protesters rather than arrest them. No luck.

Republicans have a curious attitude about the people’s building. They seem to think that winning the election deeded the legislative complex over to them. One of the more disgraceful moments illustrating that came when House Speaker Thom Tillis ordered citizens seeking to be heard on an issue banned from the building’s second floor.

Herein lies a crucial question: Just what’s wrong with citizens going in to their own building to listen to speeches, to sing and to exercise their freedom of speech? There’s a fair issue here as to whether there should have been any arrests at all on Moral Mondays.

Republicanshave caused themselves considerable embarrassment, because the arrests have only drawn more attention to the protesters. With another session set to begin shortly, legislative leaders would do well to come up with a different way to handle these protests.

In the meantime, the remainder of the Moral Monday cases should be dismissed based on the constitutional issues raised.

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