Legal fight to rally at Capitol precursor to 2014 battle
Posted December 23, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — Hundreds of protesters marched on the State Capitol Monday evening in a sign that the demonstrations that marked the 2013 legislative session will continue into next year.
The march came hours after a Superior Court judge ruled that state officials improperly denied a permit for the protest.
The NAACP organized the rally to protest policies of the Republican-led General Assembly. Several left-leaning groups are trying to pressure Gov. Pat McCrory to convene a special legislative session on expanding Medicaid and reversing cuts to unemployment benefits.
A series of similar protests, called "Moral Monday," led to the arrests of more than 900 peaceful protesters at the Legislative Building during the spring and summer.
Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, said the Moral Monday movement will now build a "public record" of people who were denied Medicaid coverage or jobless benefits because of legislative actions and will seek the opinions of legal scholars on whether lawmakers can be held legally accountable, especially if someone dies.
The NAACP and other groups plan to hold a mass march on the Capitol on Feb. 8.
"We want to send a shock wave through this state," Barber told the crowd of people, many of whom held up electric candles in the rainy weather. "If you thought we fought in 2013, you ought to see how we fight in an election year."
The fight was in a Wake County courtroom earlier Monday, as the groups challenged the Department of Administration's refusal to give them a permit for the rally on Capitol grounds.
Scott Holmes, an attorney for the groups, said people have gathered at the State Capitol for a range of activities, from Veterans Day observances to the recent lighting of a Christmas tree. Blocking the NAACP and other groups from meeting at the Capitol to protest is discriminatory, he argued.
"The state cannot stand up and say, in good faith, that hundreds of people cannot gather," Holmes said. "If the people of North Carolina cannot go to the State Capitol after work to pray, when can they go?"
Special Deputy Attorney General Don Teeter said the Department of Administration needs some discretion in allowing large groups access to the Capitol, noting that upkeep of the grounds is expensive. Officials try to limit groups to a small paved area, which practically can accommodate about 100 people. Groups larger than that are turned away.
Judge Allen Baddour questioned why the permit application asked what a group plans to do on the Capitol grounds, saying it appears that officials are basing the decision to grant a permit on the content of the activity.
Teeter vehemently denied that, saying officials only want to know if extra police or fire protection will be needed. He said the state's suggestion of Halifax Mall, located across from the Legislative Building and other state offices, was a reasonable alternative.
"This has nothing to do with the content of the speech. It's just about finding the right venue for the right number of people," Department of Administration spokesman Chris Mears said after the court hearing.
Baddour ruled that there is no difference between the groups that want to protest cuts to unemployment benefits and the state's decision not to expand Medicaid and other groups that have used the Capitol grounds for other purposes, aside from the content of their speech.
"The concern the court has is that it is either discretionary or content-based," Baddour said.
Although he granted the NAACP and others a temporary restraining order that blocks the Department of Administration's decision, he told the protesters to stay on the pavement on the Capitol's south side.
"We're going to obviously go back and take a look at our restrictions and requirements," Mears said.
McCrory wasn't in Raleigh Monday, but protesters called the ruling a victory for democracy that sends a message to the governor.
"They cannot say when and where and how people that he may disagree with can come and speak out," said Al McSurely, an NAACP attorney.
McCrory spokesman Rick Martinez said the governor is more interested in expanding North Carolina's economy than in acceding to the protesters' demands.
"These are the same left-wing political groups that are wanting to keep the failed policies of the past that put people out of work," Rick Martinez said in a statement. "Gov. McCrory is working to strengthen the economy so more North Carolinians can earn a paycheck instead of hoping for a government check."