ACLU, civil rights groups: Elizabeth City protest permit requirement, curfew violate 1st Amendment and other rights

Andrew Brown Jr.

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WAVY) — The North Carolina ACLU and other civil rights groups have sent a letter to Elizabeth City officials saying their new requirement that permits need to be filed to hold protests violates the First Amendment.

The letter — which is dated April 30 and sent by the ACLU, Emancipate North Carolina, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law — was sent to Mayor Bettie J. Parker, Police Chief Eddie Buffaloe, City Manager Montré Freeman, Assistant City Manager Angela Judge, and City Attorney William H. Morgan, Jr.

As of Friday, protests had been going on for 10 days in the wake of a deputy-involved shooting on Perry Street that left 42-year-old Andrew Brown Jr. dead in his vehicle. Deputies with the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office were serving a search warrant when the shooting happened.

The permit requirement was put into place Friday, at the same time officials amended a city curfew from 8 p.m. to midnight. The new permitting requirement includes a 15-day grace period, the city said on its website.

The change in curfew and permitting process went into effect Friday night. Protest organizers went to City Hall Friday and were able to obtain a permit for the peaceful protest, which later ended up being a sit-in demonstration at the sheriff’s office.

The groups called it a “permitting scheme” in “direct response” to peaceful protests.

“The City’s new far-reaching requirement that anyone wishing to protest or gather must apply for a permit violates the First Amendment because it contains no exception for constitutionally-protected spontaneous gatherings, including gatherings in response to breaking news,” the ACLU and other groups wrote.

The letter also said people have a right to gather and protest in traditionally public areas like sidewalks, streets and other public property so long as they don’t block vehicular or pedestrian traffic or violate “other generally applicable laws.”

The groups also argued that the curfew “invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against people based on their race and/or occupation, in violation of both the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions.”

“The current curfew effectively places all Elizabeth City residents, with extremely limited exceptions, under house arrest conditions for six hours a day,” the groups said. The curfew goes from midnight to 6 a.m. daily. Pasquotank County also has the same curfew time.

Earlier Friday, Freeman, the city manager, said he ultimately wanted to lift the curfew entirely.

“Ultimately I want to lift this thing completely,” Freeman added. “I think our citizens deserve it, I think our protesters deserve it and I think the Brown family deserves it.”

The ACLU letter also raised legal concerns about the state of emergency declaration that was made Monday amid the protests and discussions about releasing body camera footage from the shooting.

Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Public Schools also said they would continue to operate on the remote learning schedule for all students and staff on Monday, May 3. They also have been learning remotely this past week.

The letter argues that peaceful protests are not emergencies, and therefore shouldn’t cause officials to declare a state of emergency. The letter cites court cases in its argument that states of emergency must be declared once “local law enforcement is no longer able to maintain order and protect lives and property.”

The ACLU and other groups argue pre-empting an issue by declaring a state of emergency doesn’t demonstrate that the “recited harms are real, not merely conjectural.”

At the end of its letter, the groups demanded the city immediately rescind both the curfew and permitting requirement.

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