A bill introduced in the state House today could label some disruptive protesters as "economic terrorists" and criminalizes blocking streets while participating “in a riot or other unlawful assembly.”
House Bill 249
, which has the short title "Economic Terrorism," was filed today by Representatives John Torbett and John Faircloth, Republicans of Gaston and Guilford counties, respectively.
The bill seems to fall in line with others filed recently by Republican legislators nationwide in an attempt to curb protesting
. While much of the bill refers to activities that are already criminalized in North Carolina, one provision would add a new penalty for blocking streets during an unlawful protest.
The measure would add to the state's definition of violent terrorism a separate category of "economic terrorism," which would be considered a Class H felony—which doesn’t sound Orwellian at all.
"The right to protest and to criticize government officials and actions is a fundamental constitutional right, and it’s also a fundamental American value," says Mike Meno, communications director for the ACLU of North Carolina, "and I think regardless of your politics, people should view these attempts to either outright curb protests or have a chilling effect on people's ability to protest as a really great threat."
A person would be guilty of economic terrorism if he or she "willfully and maliciously or with reckless disregard commits a criminal offense that impedes or disrupts the regular course of business, the disruption results in damages of more than one thousand dollars," and does so with the intent of intimidating the general public, a specific group, or any unit of government.
Brooks Fuller, who teaches media law at UNC, questions how the bill could be applied in real life.
"Objectively speaking, the bill seems to broadly prohibit impeding economic activity through acts of vandalism and with the intent to intimidate. The real question here is how methods of protest can be said to be intended to intimidate the civilian population and how such methods are linked to monetary damages [if the alleged offending conduct isn’t property damage]," he says via email. "Conceivably this would be an easy statute to apply if it was used to punish people who burn down buildings, smash windows, etc., but it seems like it could be problematic if law enforcement tried to apply it outside of such circumstances."
By itself, rioting is a Class 1 misdemeanor in North Carolina, and rioting that results in more than $1,500 in property damage or serious bodily injury is considered a Class H felony. The provision adds that standing, sitting, or lying in the street while participating in a “riot or unlawful assembly” would be a Class A1 misdemeanor. (State law already prohibits blocking streets, but the section referring to doing so during a riot or unlawful assembly is new to HB 249.)
Mayors and sheriffs would be directed to have roads cleared "after first learning that a mass traffic obstruction exists." The proposal defines “mass traffic obstruction” as a gathering of ten or more people as part of a protest, riot, or other unlawful assembly.
The bill also states that a person convicted of unlawful assembly, rioting, or obstructing traffic would be civilly liable for public safety costs incurred by responding to such an event. (The Arizona Senate tried to employ a somewhat similar strategy, but that bill died in the state House
.) Furthermore, a state agency or division of the state could bring civil action against a person in order to recoup public safety, legal, administrative, or court costs.
Meno says that while Americans have a right to peacefully protest, driving down the street isn't a constitutional right. He cites a 1939 Supreme Court ruling in which Justice Hugo Black wrote
: "Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions. Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens. "
At least sixteen other states
have considered bills taking aim at the right to peaceably assemble and talk of doing so in North Carolina isn't exactly new. After protesters shouted "shame" at former governor Pat McCrory in January, Senator Dan Bishop suggested that heckling public officials should be punishable
by five years in prison.
Phone calls to Representatives Torbitt and Faircloth were not immediately returned.