On numerous occasions, I have visited the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh to observe the workings of the General Assembly. If you have never been there, here are a few things that might take you by surprise.
Unlike the courthouses where Ive spent most of my career, there are no metal detectors. Anywhere. There are no visitor badges and no bag scanners, and there is no ban on cell phones. Theres no sign-in sheet or requirement that you show identification. No prohibition on cameras. No bailiffs in the corner of every committee room. Members doors are unlocked and open, and legislators walk freely from meeting to meeting without being flanked by security or surrounded by handlers.
In short, the Legislative Building is the most open building in state or federal government in North Carolina. And our legislators are, both Republican and Democrat, the most accessible elected figures in state or federal government. There would be, and should be, public outcry if citizens were banned from visiting the second floor of the statehouse in Raleigh. Or if content was restricted on signs brought into the building. The media would react harshly and citizens would rightly demand that their access and free speech be reinstated.
Yet the rules of the Legislative Building restricted those very rights until they were recently amended by Republican legislators. The old building rules, adopted unanimously in 1987 by a fully Democratic-member committee, prohibited visitors from the second floor of the Legislative Building. They also contained content-based restrictions on signage.
The new building rules adopted by the Building Rules Committee last month made such gatherings on the second floor legal and removed restrictions on signage, conforming to current practice on both and allowing for more open access to the Legislative Building than was permitted under the Democrats rules (which, by the way, have been found unconstitutionally vague and unenforceable).
Some have argued vehemently that the new rules suppress speech and silence opposition. Nonsense. The rules actually promote interaction, ensuring that all voices can be heard, not just the loudest ones.
The resulting rule changes are fair, legal and, most importantly, a responsible step to ensure clarification for the courts. I am confident that changes will hold up in court and provide a needed tool for legislative staff to continue providing an environment that allows North Carolinas residents students, visitors, legislators and activists open access to one of our most important privileges: seeing our legislative branch work first-hand. I encourage all North Carolinians to find an opportunity to visit Raleigh and the Legislative Building, which remains open and welcoming to its citizens.
I. Beverly Lake Jr. is a former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.