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Legitimate or Political? BLM protester suing North Carolina sheriff over his arrest

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Carli Brosseau

The Charlotte Observer

A Black Lives Matter protester has sued Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated when the sheriff personally ordered that he be arrested at the end of a 2020 racial justice march.

The Sept. 8 filing is the latest in a spate of lawsuits related to constraints on political speech in Graham, the Alamance County seat, one of the most active Black Lives Matter protest sites in the country following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Immediately after Floyd’s death set off a wave of protests across the country, authorities in Graham blocked attempts to demonstrate near the county’s historic courthouse, which has a Confederate monument at the main entrance.

The plaintiff in the most recent case, Maurice Wells Jr., joined a march on July 11, 2020, that was allowed after litigation by the ACLU and other civil rights groups forced the city and county governments to loosen their restrictions.

The march drew to a close in front of the Confederate monument in Court Square. As march organizers gave speeches and musicians performed, a group of counter-protesters with flags and clothing celebrating the Confederacy gathered in an adjacent park, where they repeatedly clanged the 400-pound bell at the park’s center.

March participants were frustrated that the sound of the bell was distracting from their event, and when the crowd dissipated Wells and other marchers took the chance to ring the bell themselves. Video from that day shows Wells, who is Black, singing Anita Ward’s disco classic “Ring My Bell” as he pushed the clapper.

Counter-protesters complained to police, who called the sheriff to return to the park. After trying to calm down Gary Williamson Jr., the founder of ACTBAC, a now-defunct local Confederate heritage group, Johnson turned to Wells, who had been calling out that he was going to ring the bell again. Wells used expletives.

“Son, quit ringing that bell or you’re going to jail,” Johnson said, according to the complaint in the lawsuit. Wells responded that he intended to keep going, and Johnson then told him he was under arrest.

After officers hauled Wells away, a woman protested: “Why did you arrest him?”

“He refused to leave and was using language that is not decent language,” Johnson told her, according to video of the exchange that was included in “Sound of Judgment,” a 20-minute documentary The News & Observer and ProPublica published about the longstanding racial discord in Graham.

Later, in court, Johnson denied that the arrest had been about profanity, saying instead that Wells was inciting a riot.

Fighting words?

The lawsuit argues that Johnson and his office “engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination when it permitted ACTBAC members to freely ring the bell during the BLM protest but arrested Mr. Wells when he engaged in the same conduct.” Many protesters said they perceived a double standard.

Wells’ bell ringing was “expressive conduct” entitled to protection as political speech under the First Amendment, his attorneys wrote.

The expletives were part of Wells’ protected speech and used to underscore his commitment to expressing his political message, they argued.

Wells’ statements were not, the complaint states, fighting words or an incitement to violence, which are not legally protected.

At trial in March 2021, District Court Judge Lunsford Long disagreed, finding Wells guilty of failure to disperse and disorderly conduct. Wells appealed. A date for his new trial, in Superior Court, has not yet been set.

The rationale for the arrests is portrayed in Wells’ lawsuit as political.

“Dislike of Wells’ political message and retaliation against it were the substantial or motivating factors behind Mr. Wells’ arrest,” the complaint asserts. “Sheriff Johnson’s political interests as Alamance County Sheriff were served by suppressing Mr. Wells’ speech because his message contradicts the views of a sizable portion of Sheriff Johnson’s political base.”

Johnson is a Republican up for re-election this fall. He has been in office since 2002.

The lawsuit demands damages of more than $25,000, a declaration that Wells’ arrest amounted to a violation of his right to free speech and attorney’s fees should Wells prevail.

Wells is represented by attorneys from Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School.

A sheriff’s spokesman said the office had a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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