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Civil rights concerns doom proposed 'economic terrorism' offense

Posted April 25
Updated April 26

Protesters clashed with police in Charlotte following the fatal shooting of a man by officers in September 2016.

— A bill crafted in the wake of riots in Charlotte last fall that would have made "economic terrorism" a felony crime was killed off in a House committee on Tuesday amid concerns over protecting people's right to protest.

{{a href="external_link-1"}}House Bill 249{{/a}} defined economic terrorism as committing a crime with the intent to intimidate people or influence public policy and that crime impedes the normal course of a business or a government agency, resulting in the loss of at least $1,000. Such crimes include trespassing or blocking streets.

"We have a God-given right to protest, but it's our responsibility to look after the safety of our citizens," said sponsor Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston.

Torbett and fellow sponsor Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said the measure assailed the notion that it would affect people's free speech rights. They said it targets only violent demonstrations that damage businesses or disrupt traffic.

"I take strong exception (to the argument) that this bill does anything to trample rights," Blust said.

Some protests go beyond merely voicing their displeasure and "try to get in your face," he said, recalling one instance where he was blocked in a parking garage for an hour because a protest blocked nearby streets.

"They want to obstruct to force everyone to hear what they have to say," he said. "It's my right not to have to listen."

Some lawmakers said the law could have been applied to civil rights marches in the 1960s and anti-abortion protests. Other critics have previously said it could be used against the "Moral Monday" protests at the Legislative Building, where hundreds of people have been charged with trespassing in recent years.

"What you have here is a direct threat to civil liberties," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, noting that he has participated in demonstrations that have become violent and resulted in arrests.

"This is not just (dealing) with blocking traffic. It has a lot to do with blocking speech," said Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said calling the offense economic terrorism was "unnecessarily provocative," and he and others said existing laws already address most of the concerns of the bill sponsors.

Under the proposal, anyone found guilty of economic terrorism would face four months to more than two years in prison, could be sued for damages of at least $50,000 and could be held liable for the costs of police and other public safety personnel who respond to the disturbance.

Several people said the legislation would have a chilling effect on protests.

"It's unreasonable to treat protesters more harshly than anyone who wasn't protesting who committed these same behaviors," Carl Hintz, a student at North Carolina State University, told lawmakers.

"This country was founded by people who protested. It's part of our nature," Brian Irving said. "People who commit these (violent) acts aren't going to obey the laws anyway."

The bill failed 5-6 in the House Judiciary II Committee.

Meanwhile, The House Judiciary I Committee approved a bill that would provide immunity from lawsuits to a driver who "exercises due care" but hits a protester blocking a street.

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  • William Sherman Apr 25, 5:09 p.m.
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    Once again the Legislature, caught up in the "politically correct" fever is refusing to protect citizens and their property. The "protestors" who burn, loot, destroy are seldom if ever arrested--and an even fewer number are prosecuted.