RALEIGH — A judge in Wake County Superior Court on Friday agreed to temporarily suspend some of the new rules for the N.C. Legislative Building.
Judge Carl Fox, an Orange County judge presiding in Wake County this week, made the ruling after hearing arguments from attorneys for the NAACP and the special deputy attorney generals representing the state.
Fox said a rule stating that visitors to the legislative complex “may not disturb or act in a manner that will imminently disturb” the General Assembly, its members, committees or staff, was overly broad.
The legislators who amended the rules in early May said anybody “making a noise loud enough to impair others’ ability to conduct a conversation in a normal tone of voice while in the general vicinity” could be creating a “disturbance.” Singing, clapping, shouting, playing instruments or using equipment to amplify sound also were listed as examples of disturbing behavior.
“I can tell you, I’ve been in that building and groups of schoolchildren are some of the loudest,” Fox said before announcing his decision. “Why do we give a rat’s behind about whether or not somebody else can hear their conversation.”
Fox also suspended a rule allowing the confiscation and punishment of somebody with “a sign that is used to disturb or used in a manner that will imminently disturb.”
And Fox criticized and temporarily suspended a rule that allows for the arrest of anybody “creating any impediment to others’ free movement around the grounds.” The judge noted that people sometimes walk three abreast on a sidewalk, blocking others, either intentionally or unintentionally.
“We’re talking about arresting people,” Fox said, before calling the rule overly broad.
The decisions came several days before the next demonstration and rally scheduled at the Legislative Building.
The NAACP and five plaintiffs are challenging the rules adopted, characterizing them as measures specifically targeting the protesters who rallied most Mondays last year while the General Assembly was in session.
In court documents and arguments during a hearing Friday, Irv Joyner and Scott Holmes, attorneys representing the plaintiffs, made many of the same arguments they have made through the year, as cases of the 945 protesters arrested in 2013 make their way through Wake County’s criminal courts.
‘A chilling effect’
Joyner argued that the Legislative Building is a place where people should be able to “interact with their legislators” and “make their grievances known.” The rules, which were hastily amended in May by a commission that had not changed them in several decades, were designed to have “a chilling effect,” Joyner argued.
“We’re in a country born out of protest, but in the General Assembly, they want to shut it down,” Joyner told the judge.
Joyner and Holmes argued that there are existing laws that allow law enforcement officers to stop anything that “disrupts” the General Assembly. The word “disturb” and the vagueness of what defined a “disturbance” troubled the attorneys.
Special Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar argued that law enforcement officers needed to be able to maintain control in a public building, and that visitors should not be able to cause disturbances that interfere with state business or public access.
Majmundar argued that the new rules were less restrictive than the ones in place during the 2013 protests that resulted in the hundreds of criminal cases.
The court actions Friday arose from a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the NAACP and the five plaintiffs.
Stella Adams, one of 14 people arrested May 27 inside the office of N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, was one of the plaintiffs. Others are Douglas and Vicki Ryder, a Durham couple arrested last year during one of the “Moral Monday” protests and acquitted of the charges; Sylvia Barnes, a Goldsboro NAACP leader, and O’Linda Gillis, president of the Moore County NAACP chapter.
Fox’s temporary suspension of the rules lasts through June 23. He said arguments from the NAACP had merits, as did arguments by the special attorney generals representing the state.
Persuading the judge
Those arguments will be aired further as the lawsuit progresses through Wake County civil court. But before it is resolved, Fox said the NAACP and others had persuaded him that the threat of arrest for rules that might not be constitutional was reason enough to suspend them temporarily.
Sen. Phil Berger, president pro tem of the N.C. Senate, issued a news release Thursday before the NAACP announced that the lawsuit had been filed. He contended the rule changes are an attempt to “liberalize and clarify archaic and confusing building rules adopted decades ago.”
“For years, we’ve heard feedback that the 30-year-old building rules implemented by previous Democrat leaders were confusing and restrictive,” Berger said in the statement.
“We responded to those concerns, and I am baffled why Rev. (William) Barber is now trying to turn back the progress we made in increasing building access and free speech.”
The attorneys for the NAACP can return to court and ask for an extension, but they have to explain why such a measure is necessary.
Al McSurely, one of the attorneys for the NAACP, applauded Fox’s decision after the hearing. A demonstration is planned on Monday to protest what NAACP members call “extreme budget proposals that will hurt the state’s most vulnerable.”
A mass rally is planned for June 23.
“The NAACP is very encouraged by this, mainly because we’ve had many calls from members who are afraid to come,” McSurely said. “People should feel free to come now and not worry about these vague rules.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe