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NC Lawmakers Attempt to Limit Protests, Free Speech

Orange County resident Tom High has been arrested three times for civil disobedience at the General Assembly.  (Courtesy of Kevin Smith)
Orange County resident Tom High has been arrested three times for civil disobedience at the General Assembly. (Courtesy of Kevin Smith)
March 13, 2017

RALEIGH, N. C. – As historic numbers of North Carolina citizens are engaging in the political process, some state lawmakers are looking for ways to criminalize protesting.

House Bill 249, known as the "Economic Terrorism Bill," would outlaw acts of protest such as disrupting traffic or business, or taking part in actions that might intimidate law enforcement.

Similar legislation has been introduced in 16 other states. Mike Meno, communications director for the ACLU of North Carolina, says protecting First Amendment rights is not a partisan issue.

"That's something that should be concerning to all Americans, regardless of our politics," said Meno. "These are not only protected by the Constitution, but they're fundamental American values."

If the legislation passes, people who are found in violation of the law would face Class A-1 misdemeanor charges – the category with the longest jail sentences.

Supporters of HB 249 say it's meant to protect the general public and property in the event of a protest, but Meno and others point out that there already are penalties for harassment or destruction of property.

Orange County resident Tom High has been arrested three times for civil disobedience at Raleigh protests. He insists that, for him, casting a ballot isn't enough – and says it's worth the risk to assert his rights.

"You have to be engaged, you have to educate yourself, and it's not just about going out to vote," High said. "You have to participate, in some form or fashion, beyond that."

The ACLU and others have taken the stance that bills such as HB 249 are attempts by lawmakers to discourage and intimidate voters from voicing their opposition to policies.

"There are already laws on the books that criminalize vandalism, that criminalize looting," explained Meno. "Law enforcement has the authority to carry out the law. It's always dangerous when we give power to the government to limit rights."

The legislation also would allow local governments to sue people convicted of riot, unlawful assembly or traffic-obstruction charges to recoup the cost of law enforcement. Gov. Roy Cooper has yet to issue a statement on whether he would sign or veto such a bill.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC