Dear Friends of Civil Rights,
Thank you for inviting me to come spend time with you at the UNC Center for Civil Rights to talk about our adventures representing Moral Monday protesters. It was such an honor and pleasure to return to the same room and the same halls were I began my journey as an attorney. Your energy and commitment keeps my fire for justice burning hot and bright. I had some thoughts about questions that were asked during the panel and wanted to share those thoughts and ideas with you.
I am glad that David Neal brought portions of the video of the protest to share with you. I get chills whenever I watch the videos of the Moral Monday protests. We watched together the power of people coming together for the common welfare of all. I have many favorite parts of these videos, but we did not see one of my favorites together. The last people to be arrested huddle in a small group. They continue to sing songs of protest – We shall overcome – This little light of mine. They look increasingly anxious as it comes their turn to be arrested, but they are smiling and singing proudly. One by one, the sound of the singing gets quieter and quieter until the last person singing is taken away in handcuffs. As someone fighting for the right of the People to assemble and to have their voices heard, I am particularly touched by the physical removal of the people one by one and the silencing of their voices with arrest.
There seemed to be an interest in the legal arguments that we are making in Court, but we did not really get into those arguments during our time together. The essence of our argument is that the Article I Section 12 of the North Carolina creates a public space inside the General Assembly where people can gather to make their concerns heard. Article I Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution provides:” The people have a right to assemble together to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the General Assembly for redress of grievances; but secret political societies are dangerous to the liberties of a free people and shall not be tolerated.“
Chief Weaver allowed protesters to enter the second floor rotunda of the General Assembly knowing they were going to engage in political speech. Legislative rules prohibited gatherings of people on the second floor, and specifically prohibited signs communicating messages on political issues. The rules did not establish a regulation with clearly established objective standards for regulating speech. Chief Weaver ordered the crowd to leave the premises when he determined the group violated the legislative rules and had “disturbed” the General Assembly.
The order to leave the premises was unconstitutional because protesters were engaging in protected political speech in a forum designated by the North Carolina Constitution and by Chief Weaver as a public area where the protest could occur. Chief Weaver’s order was unconstitutional because he exercised unfettered discretion in the enforcement of vague and overbroad legislative rules which were not content neutral. The rules specifically prohibit signs which advocate for or against political issues, but not other signs. Because the State cannot show the order silencing the protesters was necessary to serve a compelling state interest, the order to leave was unconstitutional. There was no evidence that any legislator or staff member was actually disrupted in the performance of their duty, and so there is no basis to order these People to leave the People’s house.
I am honored to represent so many prophets and heroes. They have ignited me and help me begin to envision new ways for lawyers to transform our state into a more inclusive and compassionate society. As community lawyers we are learning new ways of empowering voices, raising consciousness, and collaborating for freedom. It is certainly an exciting time to be a lawyer in North Carolina, and I look forward to welcoming you to the plentiful work to be done around our State.