Protesting the riot law

Published May 4, 2023

By Tom Campbell

What’s the difference between a protest and a riot? It is a legitimate question since our legislature recently passed an anti-riot bill. Simply put, a person or group’s right to protest is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, however once a riot begins, people are no longer protected.
Miriam Webster says a protest is a “usually organized public demonstration of disapproval” (of some law, policy, idea or state of affairs), while a riot is “a disturbance of the peace created by some assemblage of usually three or more people acting with a common purpose and in a violent and tumultuous manner to the terror of the public.”
The Anti-riot law defines a riot as a public disturbance where three or more people with “disorderly and violent conduct, or the imminent threat of disorderly and violent conduct, results in injury or damage to persons or property or creates a clear and present danger for injury or damage to persons or property.” A new level of felony penalties is created for those who cause property damage of $2,500 or more and/or inflict serious bodily injury or death to others. Those accused could be held in jail for 24 hours, a compromise from the 48 hours originally proposed.
The anti-riot bill passed quickly and Representative Marcia Morrey, a Democrat from Durham County, declared that “If a speeding ticket could be issued for the fastest bill we’ve ever seen, this would get it.” But House Speaker Tim Moore said, “This bill is designed to punish those who are either inciting or actively engaged in criminal conduct, not the person who showed up to protest, as their right would allow.” 
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the law, saying it contains clearly unconstitutional portions.” Their suit stated, “even where a protestor only verbally encouraged activities defined as ‘rioting’ and did not take any individual actions to cause injury or damage, a protestor could be found liable.” 
Speaker Tim Moore attempted to dampen the impression that the new bill was in response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) riots, saying that the January 6th attack, as well as violence that occurred during the BLM protests should be punished, regardless of who commits it. “This is not about whether you are left or right or anything, he said during the House debate, adding that people of all political leanings could engage in violence. 
Here’s my spin: It is a shame to question the motives for this legislation, but sadly we must. It wasn’t proposed after Charlottesville riots but only after the Black Lives Matter events that resulted from the George Floyd murder. We will know for sure the motives after future protests. If, however, we can put those concerns aside, the bill does have merit, which explains why it passed with veto-proof majorities in both houses of our legislature.
I would hope the majority would agree that all citizens have the First Amendment right to protest under the freedom of speech and right to assemble clauses of our Constitution. This is a foundational tenet of America. 
But while each of us has these rights, we also have responsibilities as citizens. It is against the law to damage others’ property or inflict harm to people. Violators must know this isn’t tolerable and the anti-riot bill clearly defines the punishments for violations.  
However, sometime renegades infiltrate the sponsoring protests and cause violence. This is a case where a few can negate the purpose for the event. We would take issue with the assertion by the ACLU. Those who encourage violence or damage may not be guilty of riotous conduct, but they are nonetheless guilty. The responsibility of protest leaders and those just there to peaceably protest is to call these out these violators and publicly decry their violence. 
Our hope is that law enforcement will have the experience and wisdom to separate the good from the bad….and that the rest of us react responsibly.