Raleigh, N.C. — A committee of legislative leaders that hasn't met since the 1990s is preparing to redraw rules Thursday for decorum in the legislative building. The changes come as activists who are part of the "Moral Monday" movement promise to renew their weekly protests at the General Assembly.
"We're trying to make sure, No. 1, the rules are up to date," said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the House Rules chairman and a member of the Legislative Services Commission. "We also want to make sure the rules we have are fair."
However, some groups say the potential revisions could allow for "selective enforcement."
Rules for the General Assembly are set by the commission, which is scheduled to meet Thursday at 10 a.m.
Moore said the panel hasn't met since Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, was speaker of the House in the early 1990s. The building rules now posted on the legislature's website date back even further – to the late 1980s. Proposal for new legislative building rules
For years, few people took note of the rules, which are also posted on a little-observed sign that hangs near the entrance to the building.
But as protests against Republican policies led to arrests last year, questions about the rules arose. Most of the nearly 1,000 Moral Monday protesters arrested in 2013 were charged with "violating building rules."
The rules, for example, currently ban visitors from the second floor of the three-story building. The second floor is where the office of the speaker of the House and Senate president pro tem are located, as well as the entrances to the House and Senate chambers. Lobbyists, journalists and others with business at the legislature regularly visit the second floor of the building, despite the rules.
But in 2013, protesters ran afoul of the rule when they gathered in the courtyard between the chambers. 'Moral Monday' protests returning to legislature next week Barber pledges 'Moral Mondays' will return to NC legislature
Building rules currently ban protesters from carrying signs "expressing support for or opposition to an issue," with the exceptions of buttons or badges.
"That, to me, sounded like a prohibition based on the content of speech," said Moore.
Some judges have agreed with that assessment. A number of the Moral Monday protesters have been convicted, others have accepted plea deals and some have been exonerated. Moore said the new rules were aimed, at least in part, at "making very clear" when someone was violating the rules and making convictions easier to obtain, when necessary.
The proposed new rules would remove the prohibition on visiting the second floor and allow visitors to carry signs, as long as they were not mounted on sticks or weren't "libelous or vulgar."
Moore said lawmakers have consulted with police and the Wake County district attorney, as well as civil rights groups.
Some of those groups expressed skepticism about the revisions Wednesday night.
"Constitutional lawyers are skeptical that the rules will pass constitutional muster, since Article I, Sec. 14 of the N.C. Constitution guarantees the rights of the people to 'instruct their representatives in the General Assembly' about how the people feel about the policies being discussed there," Al McSurely, a lawyer and spokesperson for North Carolina Conference of the NAACP, wrote in an email.
The civil rights group has been a major driver of the Moral Monday protests.
Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ACLU is worried about how the new rules would be enforced.
"Some of them seem to invite selective enforcement," she said.
For example, one new rules reads, "Making noise that is loud enough to impair others' ability to conduct a conversation in a normal tone of voice while in the general vicinity and may include singing, clapping, shouting, or playing instruments."
Preston said that could set up a situation in which some are allowed to clap, while leaders clamp down on others.
Other provisions say visitors can't "disturb" work in the building.
"We do have concerns about how that would be interpreted," Preston said.
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger are ex officio members of the commission, but it's unclear whether they will participate in Thursday's meeting.