Participatory democracy is essential in a vibrant society, where every voice holds significance and power is shared. At the ACLU of NC, our commitment to sustaining participatory democracy remains unyielding.

By Jefferson Parker, President, ACLU of North Carolina Board of Directors and Trustees

Community members, activists, and organizations like the ACLU of North Carolina play a pivotal role in sustaining a participatory democracy. Participatory democracy places emphasis on incorporating the concerns of citizens as the driving force for change. It requires active and direct engagement of individuals in political decision-making and for shaping policies that have a direct impact on their lives, as opposed to relying solely on elected representatives.

When we all learn and raise awareness, engage in advocacy, and participate in democratic processes, we can identify and challenge harmful and restrictive legislation and offer better and healthier alternatives for our community. By contributing to a cycle of democracy, the ACLU of North Carolina holds lawmakers accountable and works to challenge legislation that violates our civil liberties. We do this for our communities.

Recently, the ACLU contributed to this cycle of democracy by filing lawsuits to challenge legislation that restricts our rights to protest and our rights to control our bodies.

As it was drafted and ultimately passed, House Bill 40, an anti-riot bill, made it possible to charge people who “willfully incite[d] or urge[d]” someone to riot to be charged with a misdemeanor or felony. In a statement regarding the law’s passage, Governor Cooper anticipated its “disparate impacts on communities of color.” The bill was largely identified as a backlash against the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests – a version of the bill first moved through the NC general assembly in 2021.

In part because of our advocacy, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 626, which made to HB40’s provisions, including removing the clause about urging another person to participate in a riot, though it would still be a crime to “incite” a riot. The proposed revisions to HB40 are a step in the right direction and these revisions refine the legislation’s language to identify those who could be implicated under the law. However, concerns remain regarding the definition of a riot, as it may inadvertently encompass individuals participating in peaceful demonstrations or protests where disorderly conduct occurs, even if they are not engaged in and do not support such conduct.

Similarly, revisions have been made to the recently passed 12-week abortion ban, Senate Bill 20. The ACLU, along with Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, filed a federal lawsuit against this law and filed a temporary restraining order to block its implementation until the case is decided. Last Thursday, amendments to the law were introduced through House Bill 190 in response to concerns raised in the lawsuit, such as confirming that medication abortion would be legal in all cases up to 12 weeks. The amendments affirm the collective efforts of the ACLU, impacted communities, and healthcare agencies, yet they still fall short of addressing the primary issue with this kind of legislation-- at no point should any legislators feel it appropriate to restrict an individual’s right to bodily autonomy.

Our ability to propel the cycle of democracy forward is imperative to the strength of our state and of the nation. Our ability to respond, engage, and demand civil liberties and rights for all and an end to legislation that targets, controls, and harms is central to our democracy. While responding to and rectifying these harmful laws is urgent and life-saving, our lawmakers must consider the constitutionality and morality of proposed legislation prior to its introduction. We remain committed to fighting for the rights of all people, to ensure their freedoms are protected in every legislative action. We all must remain steadfast, collaborative, and unwavering to fulfill our vision for a more just and equitable future. By sustaining this cycle, we can cultivate a democracy that thrives and adapts, while safeguarding the rights and liberties of all individuals to live and exist on their own terms.