It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows acting Wake County District Attorney Ned Mangum that he’s pondering whether to proceed with prosecutions of Moral Monday protesters who were arrested in the summer of 2013.
More than 900 people were arrested for gathering at the General Assembly to peacefully voice their dismay at the backward steps choreographed by Republicans in the legislature, from voter suppression to a socially conservative agenda.
It was among the most embarrassing chapters in the history of the Legislative Building. Now Judge Donald Stephens, the respected chief resident Superior Court judge in Wake County, has appropriately ruled that the constitutional rights of one protester were violated when he was arrested on June 17 of last year.
Basically, Stephens said that the protester, Leonard Beeghley, was arrested by General Assembly police under vague orders “that vested Chief (Jeff) Weaver with wide discretion in the regulation of speech without providing measured guidance as to how to evaluate, regulate and restrict those exercising their First Amendment rights.”
A public forum
Stephens said the rotunda, where protesters met outside the chambers of the state House and Senate, is a public forum described by the state’s Constitution as a “place for people to assemble together to consult for their common good and instruct their representatives.”
No less than the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that allowed the establishment of protest-free zones outside abortion clinics as unconstitutional because it attempted to curb free speech on public property.
Wake District Court judges also have questioned the validity of arrests, and now Mangum is going to review an estimated 600 pending cases from the demonstrations.
He’s not saying there will be a mass dismissal, because each case may vary in terms of charges and circumstances. But the D.A. could do the taxpayers a favor, and stand by the Constitution, if he decided to dismiss all cases. The basic principle is that those who are not disrupting the people’s business have a right to protest. It isn’t a right to be interpreted by General Assembly police acting at the behest of leadership that simply doesn’t want to be bothered by protesters. It is free speech, pure and simple.
Republican legislators handled the protests clumsily, and in some cases outrageously. Former GOP Sen. Thom Goolsby of Wilmington coined the term “Moron Mondays” to apply to the protests. And though some Republicans did meet with protesters eventually, they foolishly delayed such meetings and seemed to think the protests would simply fade, which they did not.
Waste of time
GOP lawmakers have wrestled with how to control the protests. They would spend the people’s time and money more wisely if they focused on doing their jobs in a way that didn’t advance a hard-right agenda with the attitude that those who disagree with them don’t even deserve to be heard.
Now that the courts have repudiated the notion of restricting free speech, Mangum should abandon prosecutions. And there should be no more arrests except for clearly disruptive actions on the part of protesters, of which there have been very few if any.
The truth is, under the Constitution, demonstrators are engaging in democracy every bit as much as those sitting in the legislative chambers are. They deserve respect for their viewpoints, not handcuffs. Legislators were not elected to conduct their business as if it were a monarchy, nor should they be shielded from those who wish to differ with them in public.
The courts at different levels have in effect said just this. If GOP lawmakers won’t listen to the protesters, perhaps they’ll pay more attention to judges who speak with the authority of the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution behind them.