Rev. William Barber II was found guilty on Thursday, June 6, of trespassing in the North Carolina Legislative Building in 2017. Although he and I are on opposite ends of just about every major political issue, I find no pleasure in his conviction. Rather, I think this is an occasion to reflect on how we maintain a republic that is responsive to constituents and can function while still respecting the rights of individuals.
Given the facts of the case, Barber’s conviction was inevitable. His group was asked to leave the General Assembly building by police following complaints of the group’s noise. He refused that order and was arrested. The real test will come on appeal, when the legality of the police order for Barber to leave will be under question.
The people of North Carolina have the right, per Article I, Section 12 of the NC Constitution to “assemble together to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the General Assembly for redress of grievances.” Of course, my right to instruct my state representative would not allow me to, for example, lock my state senator in his office while I berate him for several hours on his poor policy choices. Aside from violating his right to go about his business in peace, I would be preventing him from hearing other voices and disrupting the work of an elected official on behalf of his constituents. (We will leave the whole kidnapping business aside for the sake of argument.)
As can be seen by video taken of the incident, Barber and about 20 others were not arrested for simply trying to “instruct” members of the General Assembly. These were arrested for disrupting legislative workers’ normal business through a planned sit-in protest accompanied by loud shouting. As General Assembly Police Chief Martin Brock noted during the trial, Barber’s trespassing arrest came as the result of disruption, not instruction:
“[Barber] was yelling … to the top of his lungs or his ability. He was screaming the chants, and the people were yelling them back,” Brock testified. “At times, the crowd was so loud, they would drown out me asking him to lower their voices by bullhorn…
“Now it’s readily apparent that they’re not going to, A or B, lower their voices or move, so captain then goes and tells them [individually], ‘Leave the building, or you’re going to be placed under arrest,'” Brock testified.
Our right to assemble and to instruct members of the legislature is not, of course, absolute. It must be balanced against the rights of others. Rev. Barber’s actions disrupted that balance. His believed that the rights of others who happened to be in the General Assembly building that day to go about their normal business were trumped to his right to occupy any space and be as loud as he wants to be. That is the path to mob rule, not a republic.
While our rights of free speech, assembly, and petition must be jealously protected, Rev. Barber’s arrest for trespassing was a fair cop.