RALEIGH – 14 grassroots organizations, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and the City of Durham filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the City of Greensboro’s appeal in In The Matter Of Custodial Law Enforcement Recording Sought By The City Of Greensboro. The appeal is challenging a gag order imposed on the city council that allows elected officials to view police body-camera recordings, but prohibits them from discussing the videos with the public. The judge ruled that any council member that violates the gag order is subject to fines and imprisonment. The gag order was upheld by the N.C Court of Appeals, which was one of the first opinions of the police body-camera statute. The City has requested review by the state Supreme Court.
The City of Greensboro has grappled with the issue of racialized police violence and government accountability for policing practices that unjustly target people of color for decades. Over the last several years, there have been a series of high-profile incidents involving police harassment and abuse of persons of color in the City, and allegations of civil rights violations were at issue in the incident captured on the videos subject to the gag order. The amici represent a broad range of the grassroots organizations dedicated to racial and social justice and to addressing the issues of police misconduct and racialized police violence, as well as the City’s accountability for police practices. They are also all committed to meaningful public participation, transparency, and engaged communications with local government. For the amicus parties, the gag order undermines the ability of the people, through their elected representatives, to hold the government accountable on a matter of critical public concern. It silences the very discourse critical to addressing police misconduct, implicit or unconscious bias, and racialized fear. In so doing, the order feeds the very political turmoil it seeks to suppress.
The brief argues that the gag order undermines fundamental rights guaranteed by the North Carolina Constitution, including that “all political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole,” and that “the people of this State have the inherent, sole, and exclusive right of regulating the internal government and police thereof. . . .” The amici argue that by subverting these rights, the gag order prevents the people from fulfilling their foundational civic duty to be informed and engaged on important issues impacting the community, which is necessary to ensure that their elected government officials are representing their interests effectively. The brief also asserts that the gag order is also an unconstitutional prior restraint of free speech in violation of the First Amendment. Such restrictions directly threaten the vitality of our democracy by smothering public debate on important issues; a risk made even more critical in moments of political tensions.
“Regular people in Greensboro have been a national model for the assertion of Self-Government previously during the 1960 Woolworth Sit-In Demonstrations and again with the creation of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its report in 2006 on the Greensboro Massacre, occurring on November 3, 1979,” said community activist and Beloved Community Center member Lewis Pitts. “Now, again, the People of Greensboro, speaking through this Amicus Brief, boldly re-assert the fundamental point that all political power is vested in and derived from the People and that gagging their elected officials from discussing critically important issues of racist police violence is a subversive usurpation of the sovereign and sacred power of the People.”
“The people of Greensboro deserve the right to be meaningfully represented by their elected officials. For poor people and black people in our community, who experience far too many interactions with police, it is imperative that their leaders be able to speak about those interactions honestly and openly with their constituents. Democracy is nothing without the protections of the First Amendment. And so, we fully support the people’s motion to appeal this terrible, unconstitutional gag order.” said Claire Morse of The Guilford Anti-Racism Alliance.
The N.C. Supreme Court retains discretion as to whether to accept the case for appeal. Amici conditionally submitted their brief at this early stage to encourage the Court to take up this foundational constitutional and racial justice matter. Read the brief here