Whose House Is It Anyway?

Published February 23, 2012

We’ve yet to hear a plausible explanation as to why a group of citizens was asked to leave the second floor of the North Carolina General Assembly. The group had assembled to protest the “midnight session” the North Carolina House previously convened to override a gubernatorial veto. About fifty of them made their way to the second floor of the legislative building, the floor where many lawmakers and House leadership have their offices.

We’ve seen video and talked with persons present who confirm the group was not unruly, boisterous, disrespectful, disruptive or impeding passage in the hallways, but minutes before the most current special session of the legislature was to begin they were asked to leave. Legislative officers cited an obscure 1987 rule, passed by a now-defunct legislative committee, that says, "Individuals and groups of visitors who come to the state Legislative Building for the purpose of viewing the building and observing the sessions ... shall not visit the second floor of the building." The rule has never before been enforced and it is safe to say that few lawmakers, advocacy groups, reporters or individuals even knew it existed.

It is more than a little amusing that the news media and citizens of our state were incensed over the ejection of two former basketball players by a referee, yet have not raised an eyebrow at the injustice of a group of citizens being thrown out of our legislative building.

Whose House is it anyway? Legislators elected by the people were meeting in a building owned by the public to conduct the people’s business. Are we saying that contrary to the guarantee of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution people have no right of peaceable assembly? Shouldn’t this right be especially important on public property? We admit legislating can be a messy and sometimes frustrating business but why is do we need such a rule? Who should be allowed into the legislature? What makes this story even more ironic is that the guarantee of peaceable assembly might never have been enacted had it not been for North Carolinians who, worried about abuse of this and other rights, refused to ratify a Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added.

Power is an interesting thing. Many strive for power and those who get it want to hold on to that power, sometimes abusing it in the process. Few enjoy encountering people who don’t agree with them and we admit it is important that public officials work in a safe atmosphere conducive to deliberative discussion of weighty issues, but this group posed no threat to safety or the ability of officials to do their jobs.

At the least an apology from legislative leaders who participated in this unlawful violation of rights should be forthcoming. We also need to know this unconstitutional rule has been abolished. Most importantly, our leaders need to affirm they understand and encourage the rights of people to peacefully and respectfully assemble, petition and even protest the actions of their government and its leaders….even when officials might not agree with or appreciate the positions of individuals or groups.

When basic freedoms are denied we are on a dangerous path to losing what has made this country and our state great.