RALEIGH — A bill cracking down on violent protests that critics argue could stifle free speech is heading to North Carolina’s governor.
The proposal from Republican House Speaker Tim Moore that was fueled by rioting and looting he saw take place in Raleigh last year over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis passed the House on Tuesday by a vote of 63-41. It now heads to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has previously expressed concerns with the measure.
Moore and other Republicans believe the plan will make criminals think twice before engaging in violence. They also believe it will give law enforcement the tools they need to prevent a rioter or looter from swiftly reentering the streets after they are taken into custody.
“What this bill really does well is strike a balance between protecting the right of folks to go out and protest… and at the same time, protecting order, the upholding of the law, property and life,” Moore said during the floor debate on the bill.
Two House Democrats supported the measure, down from 23 who backed an earlier version of Moore’s plan in May. House Bill 805 cleared the Senate last week, with the vote split along party lines.
If signed into law, the measure would let business owners sue individuals who damaged their property for three times the actual damages they incurred, in addition to court costs and attorneys’ fees. Those who assault emergency responders would be charged with a more serious felony, even if nobody was physically injured.
People who are charged with rioting or looting could also be held in jail for up to 48 hours without bond, conditions similar to those placed on defendants charged with domestic violence.
Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that the 48-hour lockup period is excessive and think a better solution would be to promote de-escalation techniques within law enforcement.
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham County Democrat, said existing laws sufficiently address the consequences of rioting and looting. She believes the harsher language included in the bill the House gave final legislative approval for Tuesday will not reduce violence, but instead, reduce the number of people who feel safe taking to the streets to voice their frustrations.
“The truth is this isn’t going to deter anyone, but it may have the harm of stifling free speech and free assembly, which are everyone’s constitutional rights. That’s what we’re afraid of. This bill came out because of a Black Lives Matter protest, and the response to it is not to figure out how we can get police to de-escalate.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina is among those opposed to the bill, as is Emancipate North Carolina, the state NAACP and Democracy North Carolina.
“Speaker Moore’s decision to make HB 805 his personal priority this session clearly sends the message that the demands of the Black community for transformative change have gone unheard by leadership,” Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of NC, said in a statement after the bill’s passage.
The group is calling for Cooper to veto the bill.
Cooper has previously shared his concerns with the bill, noting it would not address any of the policy recommendations that a task force he commissioned outlined last year to address racial inequity in the state’s criminal justice system.
But lawmakers recently sent him a separate measure that includes some of those recommendations, particularly about police conduct, but leaves out other far-reaching changes. Additionally, Cooper signed a bill Monday that raises the minimum age for prosecution in North Carolina’s juvenile courts from 6 to 8.
Cooper’s office signaled its opposition to the latest measure passed Tuesday that would impose harsher penalties on those who engage in violent protests.
“While people who commit crimes should be prosecuted, unnecessary laws intended to prevent people from exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest are troubling,” said a statement from Ford Porter, a spokesperson for Cooper. “The governor will continue to review this legislation.”