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NC Senate panel approves controversial bill that targets protests, bans masks in public

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NC Senate panel approves controversial bill that targets protests, bans masks in public

May 15, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Ahmed Jallow
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NC Senate panel approves controversial bill that targets protests, bans masks in public
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State Senator Buck Newton (R-Greene, Wayne and Wilson) Photo: Screengrab from NCGA video stream

The North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of House Bill 237 on Tuesday morning that would prohibit the wearing of masks in public. 

The controversial bill, which would also increase criminal penalties for those who commit crimes while wearing a mask in public, comes in the wake of protests that have erupted on college campuses across the country in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.  

The legislation would also create a new offense for blocking traffic, a tactic used in some recent protests. 

Sen. Buck Newton (R-Greene, Wayne and Wilson), who sponsored the “committee substitute,” said it aims to reinstate a law that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re really just resetting the law to what it was pre-COVID,” said Newton. “That’s really what the purpose is now, is to deal with organizations and individuals who are intent on breaking the law and hiding their identity, and using the hiding of their identity as a way to intimidate other people — to get away with it.”   

Laws dating back to the 1950s that were enacted, at least in part, as responses to groups like the Ku Klux Klan, prohibit wearing a mask in public in North Carolina, with exceptions. Those exceptions were expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic to include people wearing masks for health reasons. Newton’s bill would remove that specific exception. 

Lawmakers and advocates from several organizations criticized the bill, calling it an attempt to restrict protest activity that would also endanger public health. 

“This bill is clearly in response to the recent protests on college campuses against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza,” Melissa Price Kromm, executive director of NC for the People Action, said. “Thus, it is another anti-protest bill.”   

Though he acknowledged concerns about public health, Newton said he believes some are “stoking fears” about the law and exploiting COVID-era laws that allowed mask wearing as an excuse to hide their identities. 

“I think that there’s people out there who are trying to prey upon their fear about that. This was not a problem pre-COVID,” said Newton. “We didn’t see granny getting arrested in the Walmart pre-COVID. I don’t think we’re going to see that when we pass this legislation.” 

Sen. Sydney Batch
Sen. Sydney Batch (D-Wake) Photo: ncleg.net

Sen. Sydney Batch (D-Wake) pushed back, saying that as someone who was immunocompromised during medical treatment, she opposes any provision that makes mask-wearing more difficult for people with health concerns. 

“I don’t think that it’s stoking the fears of individuals who walk through this world compromised through no fault of their own,” Batch said. “My issue is that we are removing the specific section that gave people who are immunocompromised or people who were sick and just care about the community. Someone walking around with tuberculosis, wants to wear a mask to protect everybody else is no longer able to do that based on this bill.”   

“No one wants to see a grandmother arrested for wearing a mask. The fact, though, is that this would criminalize that process,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg), adding that wearing a mask in public is life-or-death for some people. “Stated plainly, your bill will make it illegal,” Marcus added.    

Advocates from other organizations including Disability Rights NC, Emancipate NC, and the ACLU of North Carolina all spoke out against provisions in the bill that target protesters.  

“This bill is part of a broader attack on democracy we are seeing at the state legislature, while lawmakers who support these attacks on the right to protest are also leading efforts to make it harder to vote and to participate in the legislative process,” said Elizabeth Barber, the policy director of the ACLU of North Carolina.  

In a statement released prior to the committee meeting, the North Carolina NAACP decried the measure as “a dangerous bill that threatens the fundamental right to protest in North Carolina.”

“This legislation seeks to impose severe penalties on protesters, particularly targeting those who block traffic or wear masks,” the statement read. “By criminalizing these protest tactics, the bill aims to silence marginalized communities and stifle legitimate expressions of dissent.”

The bill was approved on a voice vote and then referred to the power Senate Rules Committee. If and when it is approved by the full Senate, it will be returned to the House for concurrence in the Senate changes.