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Hear no protests, see no protests

My-protest

Lawmakers swing and miss again with new restrictions on Legislative Building access

Anyone who has ever held a position of power and authority has experienced the temptation to tune out and/or stifle criticism. Whether it’s parents dealing with kids, workplace supervisors interacting with employees or powerful national leaders feeling the heat from the citizenry, the demands of leadership can drive just about any person – regardless of their ideology – to throw up their hands and shout: “Enough! I’m in charge here and here’s the way things are gonna’ be.”

And, of course, as history has shown us time and again, such temptations are often strongest for newcomers to power. The insecurities that result from inexperience have led many a newbie parent or boss to blow his or her top in a way that would have never occurred to a more seasoned and secure person. (Say what you will about the presidency of Barack Obama, but the man’s ability to remain cryogenically cool right from the start of his presidency in the face of incessant and vitriolic personal attacks that are now into their sixth year has been an impressive achievement).

Still, some leaders never learn to relax when it comes to such matters. For some, the very exercise of dissent – especially if it’s loud and passionate and personal – is an affront to their basic worldview. Think, for instance, of Mayor Richard Dailey and the Chicago police of 1968 going after the demonstrators who had gathered outside the Democratic Party Convention. Those attacks weren’t so much about silencing the protesters as they were about delivering a very direct and intentional political message about who was the boss and how society should operate.

The response to “Moral Mondays”

In Raleigh right now, we’re witness to a political leadership whose struggle with dissent appears to be born both of inexperience and ideological inclination. When the current crop of legislative leaders came to power back in 2011 – well before the advent of the Moral Monday protests — it didn’t take long to figure out that this was the case. As was noted in this space back during that first legislative biennium:

But it’s not just the way the legislative processes are being managed [that shock and dismay]; it’s the feel of the place itself. What once was a mostly friendly and congenial place – a set of buildings in which even adversaries could be cordial and find some common interests in governing and in which all visitors were welcomed – is now a divided, suspicious and less polite venue. Law enforcement officers patrol the hallways casting a suspicious eye on every group of more than handful of people. Access to hallways and committee meetings is much more tightly regulated and even the sergeants-at-arms patrols (groups of mostly retired men and women who once greeted all visitors with a smile and a pat on the back) seem grumpy and short-fused.”

And while this response might have been ascribed to mere inexperience – after all, power was a new thing for most of the current crop of conservative leaders – it became clear last year once the Moral Mondays began that something more was at work. This is from last May:

Moreover, the trespasses that have occurred have been utterly peaceful and scarcely even disruptive to the flow of business in the General Assembly. Indeed, when one watches and reads about the arrests and listens to the descriptions of the rough and disproportionate treatment meted out to some of the protesters, one almost gets the sense that the police officers assigned to the task have been directed to inflict pain and punishment on people who obviously have no intention of acting with violence or even active resistance to arrest (and even mere spectators).”

A new provocation

One might have thought that the extended respite between the end of the 2013 long session and last week’s start of the 2014 short session would have provided an opportunity for the legislative powers-that-be to cool off and rethink their aggressive stance toward the protesters. Surely, some political advisors have also counseled Thom Tillis, Phil Berger and Pat McCrory to just go about their business and ignore the protesters and deny them the publicity that comes with arrest. Some might have even advised in favor of a high-profile meeting at which the leaders could have at least pretended to be listening.

Unfortunately, such common sense tactics don’t appear to flow from the political DNA of the current crop of conservative leaders. Instead, they still seem bent on showing everyone “who’s boss.” This fact was confirmed once again last week, when leaders doubled down on their curious scheme of going out of their way to provoke demonstrators by springing, without warning, a new and un-vetted set of rules to govern access to the state Legislative Building.

This is not to say that it didn’t make sense to revisit the rules – especially given the passage of time since their adoption (27 years) and the general lack of awareness about what they said. With the growing public focus on the goings on in the General Assembly, it makes sense to have rules that maximize public access and safety and that allow lawmakers to do their work without excessive interruptions. And, indeed, there are improvements in the new rules.

That said, it’s ridiculous and offensive for a small and mysterious group of legislators (a group known as the Legislative Services Commission that had not met in 15 years) to simply spring the rules on the public without providing any meaningful notice or opportunity to provide input and announce: “Here’s the deal.” This is, after all, fundamental First Amendment stuff we’re dealing with here – not just some obscure and bureaucratic rules. That the new rules were also so clearly targeted at Moral Monday protesters just exacerbates the problem.

To make matters worse, the new rules remain problematically vague and an invitation to selective enforcement. The notion that lawmakers should be able to forcibly expel or arrest anyone who “disturbs” them (or who is supposedly a threat to do so) poses obvious practical and, potentially, constitutional problems. If this is applied literally, half the school kids who visit the Legislative Building each week could be candidates for expulsion or arrest.

As Charlotte Observer essayist Fannie Flono opined last Thursday:

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the House Rules chairman and a member of the Legislative Services Commission, had said earlier this week that the panel needed to make changes to ‘make sure the rules we have are fair.’

Some changes do that, including rules specifying that use of the legislative building can’t be denied based on what the person or group has to say or allowing the public to visit the second floor of the building. But others are not fair; in fact, they seem to invite selective enforcement.

And far from bringing needed clarity to some of their rules, lawmakers made changes that appear to promote more vagueness.

Several of these changes also invite a court challenge for free speech infringement.”

Going forward

The bottom line: The Legislative Building is the “People’s House.” Any rules limiting public access to the building or the elected officials who serve there ought to be very carefully crafted and as narrowly tailored as possible. These new rules pretty clearly fail this test.

Moreover, from a practical standpoint, the rules seem certain to fail to bring greater order or dissuade protesters. Here’s Flono again:

Far too many N.C. lawmakers made it clear last year that they didn’t want to hear from citizens who opposed their agenda. In fact, one lawmaker said as much, telling a constituent to sit down and shut up.

If these rule changes are attempts to intimidate and silence dissenters, it is cowardly and unacceptable. On Monday, I expect Moral Monday protesters will be back, and lawmakers will find out such tactics won’t work.”

As was plainly demonstrated at yesterday’s Moral Monday event, Flono was right.

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