House Bill 249, filed by Republican Representatives John Torbett and John Faircloth, is calling for the creation of a felony offense for “economic terrorism.”
Economic terrorism is any attempt at economic destabilization by a group or individual.
HB249 could have the power to label disruptive protesters as “economic terrorists,” as well as criminalizing the act of blocking streets if the protestor is participating “in a riot or other unlawful assembly” according to section six subsection C of HB249.
According to the bill, an individual is found guilty of economic terrorism if “the person willfully and maliciously or with reckless disregard commits a criminal offense that impedes or disrupts the regular course of business, the disruption results in damages of more than one thousand dollars” with the intention to either “intimidate the civilian population at large, or an identifiable group of the civilian population,” or “influence, through intimidation, the conduct or activities of the government of the United States, a state, or any unit of local government.”
Under HB249, any protester found guilty of economic terrorism would face a minimum of four months to up to over two years in prison, along with fines of at least $50,000 for damages to property.
Civil liberties groups see the bill as a hindrance of First Amendment rights because of the power the bill has to ultimately halt different forms of free speech in public areas.
Sarah Gillooly, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union NC chapter, is one individual that agrees the bill has direct interference with free speech.
“This bill is part of an alarming trend we’ve seen in North Carolina and across the nation to put a chilling effect on people’s First Amendment rights,” Gillooly said in an interview conducted with WRAL.
Guilford County Representative Cecil Brockman also feels there needs to be no change in the present policy.
“I believe our current laws adequately address any issues with inappropriate conduct during a protest,” Brockman stated. “Therefore, I do not believe this bill is necessary.”
The broadness of the bill could have the potential to affect events such as the “Moral Monday” protests in front of the Legislative Building where many protesters have been arrested for trespassing in previous years.
On the flipside, other politicians support HB249, seeing it as more of a guardrail to improve public safety or keep order, not ban free speech.
Guildford Representative John Blust does not consider the bill to be “anti-protest” but more as “anti-riot.”
“It is really an anti-rioting bill,” Blust stated. “Peaceful protests will not be affected, unless protesters block major roadways – which they have no right to do. There is a right to protest, but there is no right to impede others from exercising their rights.”
At least sixteen other states have considered implementing bills aimed at the right to peaceably assemble, including Iowa, Minnesota, Georgia and North Dakota.
HB249 was brought to the House on March 2, 2017 and will become effective on December 1, 2017 if passed.