- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Protesters, lobbyists and lawmakers alike should soon be free to put signs on sticks and talk, shout, or sing as loud as they’d like in the halls of the Legislative Building.

A Superior Court judge in Wake County on Friday struck down some of the new rules for the Legislative Building that were enacted last month following dozens of “Moral Monday” protests that resulted in the arrests of more than 900 people.

Judge Carl Fox said some of the rules the Legislative Services Commission adopted last month for the building where the General Assembly meets are overly broad and vague, including one that prohibited sounds that hindered someone’s ability to have a conversation in a “normal tone of voice” and one that banned signs attached to sticks. It’s uncertain when Fox will sign the ruling and whether it will apply to next week’s “Moral Monday” rally.

After more than four hours of debate, Fox said he didn’t understand the sign rule.

“I have a difficult time seeing how signs are used in a manner to disturb. … It’s a sign,” he said.

He was also unclear on what constituted a “normal tone of voice.”

“Is there any such thing as a normal tone of voice?” he said. “That depends on who’s talking.”

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, which contended the rules hampered protests, and were meant to quash opposition to GOP policies and criminalize constitutionally protected free speech.

The NAACP also argued that the Legislative Services Commission was an inherently unconstitutional commission and was acting unilaterally, like the executive branch. The commission is made up of legislators, but its rules do not follow the typical course of legislation. Once panel members vote on rules, they are adopted.

Attorneys for the state said the new rules allowed more protests and opened up the building more, but mandated that it be done appropriately. Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a statement he was baffled by the lawsuit and that the rules, which were last updated in 1987, were meant to liberalize and clarify.

Amar Majmundar, a lawyer with the Attorney General’s Office, said the new rules specifically prohibited crackdowns on protests or speech based on their content, which removes the threat of selective and partisan enforcement.

“These rules don’t deprive free speech right,” Majmundar said. “The rules deprive any protester from disturbing the operation and the function of the General Assembly.”

Fox’s ruling will be in effect until June 23, the last Monday before legislators hope to adjourn.

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