NOTHSTINE: Protests are patriotic, not riots

State Troopers stand by as protestors gather outside an event where U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell is scheduled to speak in Lawrenceburg

Apparently, more laws are needed to remind some North Carolinians that impeding traffic and destroying property while protesting is a crime. Piling on more laws to existing law and statutes is usually a bad sign for freedom, especially any legislation that could potentially affect First Amendment protections. However, one of the core functions of government is to provide security and safety for the citizenry, as well as to champion and protect property rights.

Put forward last week by state Rep. John Torbett, H.B. 249 would increase the penalties for those who deter citizens from traveling freely while empowering law enforcement to keep the peace. The legislation could even brand a so-called protestor an “economic terrorist” for destroying property worth more than $1,000 or acts to “intimidate the civilian population at large” and “influence, through intimidation, the conduct” of government officials. The bill too adds civil liabilities that government can recoup from criminal “protestors” for the expense toward maintaining the rule of law.

Bills like H.B. 249 are not unique to North Carolina; well over a dozen other states are strengthening protections for citizens and law enforcement caught up in increasingly violent unrest. For our state, the legislation may have been prompted by motorists who had their vehicles damaged, shaken, and windows broken on Interstate 85 by those supposedly upset over the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte last year.

Last month in Connecticut, anti-Trump protestors blocked an ambulance with a critically ill patient from reaching the hospital, forcing the medical crew to perform extensive treatment in the vehicle instead. And last week, a protestor sent a female professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College to the emergency room for trying to escort a speaker on campus who dissented from prevailing campus opinions.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday, Shelby Steele noted in a piece titled “The Exhaustion of American Liberalism”: “Unlike the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, when protesters wore their Sunday best and carried themselves with heroic dignity, today’s liberal marches are marked by incoherence and downright lunacy — hats designed to evoke sexual organs, poems that scream in anger yet have no point to make, and an hysterical anti-Americanism.

” It is legal, of course, to depict genitalia on one’s head, and peaceful dissent must always be protected, but there too is an element of the radical left who no longer wish to conform to peaceful norms. Freedom to protest does not extend to destruction of property, assault, or holding hostages for attention.

During the George W. Bush presidency, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” which as a statement holds tremendous value. But then many on the right found out that somehow that wasn’t true during the Obama presidency. Proponents of bills like these say the legislation has nothing to do with freedom of speech or protestors. Torbett declares the priority and intent is for the security and safety of citizens.

Any legislation that may restrict speech needs serious examination. The ACLU opposes the bill and some on the left are already trying to stir up hyperbole and controversy. One has the feeling if laws like this were used to benefit Obama or Gov. Roy Cooper, there would be nary a peep from the left. More importantly, educated debate about the First Amendment is needed now more than ever. Protests are essential because they can help awaken citizens to serious problems, but now we need reminders that rioting, blocking traffic, and destroying property is merely criminals being criminals.

Ray Nothstine is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.