While dodging COVID and ostensibly fumbling towards a state budget, North Carolina lawmakers somehow still found the time to ensure that free speech and the right to protest made it to the chopping block, or maybe the chilling block, rather. 

Yesterday, House Bill 805, a proposal originally introduced by House Speaker Tim Moore, cleared the North Carolina Senate in a 25-19 vote along party lines.

The bill, known as the “anti-riot” bill among proponents, would increase penalties against those who engage in ill-defined “rioting.” The bill also requires a judge to set bail for anyone arrested during a protest, which will ensure they spend time in jail.

Opponents of the bill, including Democrats and civil rights groups, say the legislation will have the chilling effect of stifling free speech, the right to assemble, and will discourage peaceful protests.

Moore filed the bill 10 days after Andrew Brown Jr. was killed by Pasquotank County sheriffs’ deputies, while peaceful protests were ongoing in Brown’s hometown of Elizabeth City, N.C. Moore made no secret of the fact that the bill was introduced as a direct response to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted around the country last year in response to the police killing of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality.

Here’s more on the bill from the AP:

“But many Democrats and civil rights groups fear the measure could have a chilling effect on free speech and assembly rights by instilling fear among activists and dissuading them from going into the streets to voice their frustrations.

Among many things, the bill allows business owners to sue people who damaged their property for three times the actual damages they incurred, as well as court costs and attorneys’ fees. Protesters who assault emergency responders would be charged with a more serious felony, even if the victim was not physically injured.

Additionally, those charged with rioting or looting could be held in jail for up to 48 hours, conditions similar to those placed on defendants charged with domestic violence.

‘It sends a message that will cause people to police themselves and simply stay at home,’ said Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham County Democrat.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is among those opposed to the bill, as it considers the proposal a ‘flagrant attempt to vilify the Black Lives Matter movement.’ Emancipate North Carolina, the state NAACP and Democracy North Carolina also oppose it.”

The bill returns to the House for concurrence before it heads to Governor Cooper’s desk. Cooper already expressed concerns with the bill at a news conference last week, the AP reports, and said lawmakers should adopt policy recommendations from a task force to address racial equity in North Carolina’s justice system that his administration commissioned last year.

“We should not have riots, and people who take part in riots should be prosecuted. That needs to be said first,” Cooper said during the news conference. “But, also, we made significant proposals about racial equity in the criminal justice system and some important common-sense changes that need to be made, and that bill doesn’t include any of them.”

In a spot of good news, thought, the legislature approved a police reform bill that includes some of the recommendations from Cooper’s and Attorney General Josh Stein’s task force, including measures designed to remove unscrupulous officers and to provide other officers with mental health assistance.  

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Follow Editor-in-Chief Jane Porter on Twitter or send an email to jporter@indyweek.com.