Civil rights groups sue N.Carolina town over protest ban – but where were they when 3 other states banned pipeline protests?
The ACLU and other groups have sued Graham, North Carolina, calling the city’s ban on “demonstrations of two or more people” while under a declared emergency unconstitutional. They’ve remained silent on similar laws, though.
Graham violated protesters’ First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and speech with the law, which bars two or more people (or even a single person carrying a sign) from assembling without a protest permit during a declared state of emergency, according to the suit, which was filed on Thursday. The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office announced last Friday that no further protest permits would be issued “for the foreseeable future” and pledged to arrest anyone protesting without one.
Along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Lockamy Law Firm are suing on behalf of the Alamance County chapter of black advocacy group NAACP and eight would-be protesters, seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from enforcing the law until they can argue their case. At least three people have been arrested while protesting at a Confederate monument in front of the county courthouse since the law took effect, according to local media.
“Peace and justice should belong to everyone, everywhere and all the time," Alamance NAACP President Barrett Brown said in a press release on Friday, while Lawyers’ Committee managing attorney Elizabeth Haddix accused the sheriff’s department of “restricting the people’s basic rights to protest white supremacy.” North Carolina ACLU representative Kristi Graunke slammed Alamance County officials for “trampling on the First Amendment rights of their own constituents for the sake of protecting a monument to white supremacy.”
While the city lifted its state of emergency (and thus the ban on permitless protesting) on Monday, allowing several dozen demonstrators to resume protesting near the statue on subsequent days, there’s nothing to stop officials from re-imposing it. Numerous Confederate monuments have come down in recent weeks, not all of them through official channels. Over 18,000 people have signed a petition demanding the removal of Graham's statue, which was dedicated in 1914.
The ACLU has bragged it is “fighting back against unconstitutional law enforcement attacks on protesters and journalists” and has even called for UN intervention as weeks of protests have roiled the US, marred by rioting and police violence. Scores of journalists have reportedly been attacked trying to cover the protests, and countless more protesters have been brutalized – with many of the attacks caught on film.
However, the ACLU has remained curiously silent on other anti-protest laws quietly rammed through during the coronavirus pandemic, even though they appear to violate the First Amendment as well by criminalizing certain forms of protest against oil and gas pipelines and other controversial infrastructure projects. Versions of an anti-pipeline-protest bill written by the rabidly pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council amid 2016’s Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline were quietly ushered through in three states in March – to crickets from the ACLU.
South Dakota and West Virginia both passed versions of a law designating oil, gas, pipelines, and other utility equipment as “critical infrastructure,” criminalizing any “substantial interruption or impairment” to the equipment as a felony. West Virginia’s version includes fines of up to $20,000 for any vandalism or tampering that causes more than $2,500 in damages, while South Dakota tacked on a second law designating “intentional use of force or violence by three or more persons” that causes “any damage to property” as felony rioting. Kentucky’s version of the law was slightly less harsh, but still designated “natural gas or petroleum pipelines” as “key infrastructure assets” and declared any tampering “in a manner that renders the operations harmful or dangerous” a felony.
While the ACLU did challenge the constitutionality of the South Dakota measure last year, even winning a temporary victory in the form of a pledge from Governor Kristi Noem not to enforce the provisions of the law that threatened pipeline protesters with fines and criminal penalties, it’s unclear why they did not pursue the measure when it was reintroduced. Versions of the lobbyist-backed legislation have been introduced in at least 20 states.
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