Two state senators are asking Gov. Roy Cooper to respond to Raleigh police’s decision to end Tuesday’s protest from the Reopen NC group. The senators suggest in a letter that Cooper might have engaged in a “grave overstep in your authority.”
Meanwhile, a state constitutional watchdog has submitted its own open letter to Cooper. It offers to help the governor end or revise orders that restrict people’s First Amendment rights in unconstitutional ways.
Asked twice about the issue during an afternoon news briefing, Cooper said his executive orders have targeted mass gatherings rather than First Amendment rights.
“We understand that your executive orders mandate particular social distancing requirements,” write Sens. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, and Danny Britt, R-Robeson. Daniel and Britt co-chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Your orders also permit dozens of people to gather in places of business provided those businesses abide by your social distancing restrictions.”
“But the police department in North Carolina’s capital city did not point to improper social distancing as the reason for their decision to arrest people yesterday,” the letter continues. “The police department indicated that you, by executive order, have prohibited protesting itself.”
“If that is true, and if authorities are arresting people who protest because you prohibited protesting, that would be a grave overstep in your authority and would require immediate judicial intervetion,” Daniel and Britt warn.
“Can you please clarify whether your executive orders have prohibited the First Amendment right of North Carolinians to peacefully protest against your executive orders?” the letter asks.
The senators are referring to Raleigh police’s action to end a midday protest Tuesday near the N.C. Legislative Building. Dozens of people associated with a private Facebook group named Reopen NC gathered in a parking lot and along sidewalks in the state government complex. They wanted government leaders to hear their plea to end restrictions that have shut down much of the state’s economy.
After having told the protesters that nothing would happen to them as long as they exercised government-mandated social distancing, Raleigh police changed course. Officers ordered the crowd to disperse.
One woman refused and was arrested. Asked about its actions, the Raleigh Police Department later tweeted that “Protesting is a non-essential activity.”
On the same day that Daniel and Britt wrote to the governor, the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law submitted its own open letter. NCICL “offered its assistance to Governor Cooper and local governments in rescinding or revising orders unconstitutionally restricting the rights of the people to free speech and to assembly,” according to a news release.
“We understand the seriousness of the situation, not just in terms of COVID-19 itself but also in terms of how government is violating the Constitution during the crisis,” said Jeanette Doran, NCICL president and general counsel.
“First Amendment rights aren’t absolute, but neither is government power,” Doran added. Her group is “more than willing” to help the governor and local governments revise or rescind their restrictions. Changes would “ensure that constitutional rights are respected.”
“The executive orders that I’ve issued do not interfere with people’s constitutional rights to express themselves,” Cooper said during a briefing at the state emergency operations center. “However, they do deal with people with unlawful mass gatherings and people who are disobeying those orders, because they are put there in order to protect the people of North Carolina, protect people from transferring this virus from one person to the next.”
“Those executive orders are there for public safety, and we expect people to obey those orders wherever they are and whatever they’re doing,” Cooper added.
The governor amplified his comments about mass gatherings at the end of his briefing. “These mass-gathering bans are in most states and North Carolina because they are one of the best protections that we have in order to slow the spread of the virus,” Cooper said.