RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday in response to a bill the General Assembly passed last month that’s aimed at cracking down on people involved in riots.
The bill became law after Gov. Roy Cooper (D) declined to either veto it or sign it into law himself. It includes stiffer criminal penalties for people involved in riots and allows people and property owners to sue for three times the damage they sustain.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU of North Carolina called the law unconstitutional, saying it would infringe on the rights of people protesting peacefully.
“The entire Anti-Riot Act rests on an overbroad definition of what constitutes a ‘riot,’” the lawsuit reads. “As a result of the unconstitutional overbreadth and vagueness of the Anti-Riot Act, Plaintiff, its employees, and its members fear that as they continue exercising their free speech, assembly, and petitioning rights by engaging in public protests and demonstrations, they risk prosecution and arrest under the Act.”
The lawsuit also cites a decision by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2020 that struck down parts of a federal anti-rioting law that made it a crime to “promote” or “encourage” a riot.
In a news release, the ACLU of North Carolina noted the new law “significantly increases criminal penalties for protesting and makes protestors liable for substantial civil damages to individuals harmed by a protest, even where a protester only verbally encouraged activities defined as ‘rioting’ and did not take any individual actions to cause injury or damage.”
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has pushed for these changes for a few years following the violence that occurred in Raleigh and other cities in 2020 as people protested in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police.
Moore said last month his goal was to “deal with this in a way that is designed to deal with the person who wants to go out and create damage, create destruction.”
The law includes a provision saying that “mere presence alone without an overt act is not sufficient to sustain a conviction.” It also says that it is not intended to “prevent or prohibit” people’s rights to free speech and to peacefully assemble.
CBS 17 has reached out to Moore’s office for a response to the lawsuit. Moore is not named as a defendant. Rather, the lawsuit names Atty. Gen. Josh Stein (D) and the district attorneys in Wake, Durham and Guilford counties, who would be tasked with enforcing the law. A spokesperson for Stein said his office was reviewing the lawsuit.
As the bill was moving through the legislature, critics of it warned it would have a chilling effect on free speech and said they believed it targeted minority citizens.
“Protest is at the heart of a functioning democracy,” said Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, in a statement. “By implementing harsher penalties for so-called rioting, the bill discourages protest and pushes the false narrative that protesters are violent and dangerous.”
The bill passed with all the Republicans and a few Democrats voting in favor of it.
Some Democrats, including Mecklenburg County Sen. Natasha Marcus, attempted to amend the bill as they raised concerns about its constitutionality.
After a vote in March, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said he acknowledged the arguments about that but added, “That’s why they build courthouses, is to resolve those issues.”
He added, “The constitutional rights we have, and folks from the left are always talking about this in the context of guns, but it’s also in the context of the First Amendment, that they are not absolute.”
When Gov. Cooper declined to sign the bill into law, he said, ”I acknowledge that changes were made to modify this legislation’s effect after my veto of a similar bill last year. Property damage and violence are already illegal and my continuing concerns about the erosion of the First Amendment and the disparate impacts on communities of color will prevent me from signing this legislation.”