North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Friday he would not use his veto stamp on a piece of legislation increasing penalties for rioters after he blocked a similar bill in 2021.
The GOP-controlled legislature sent the bill to the governor’s desk last Thursday after it passed with a bipartisan vote in the House and Senate. The Democratic governor had until Monday to sign or veto the bill, which was proposed following the nationwide riots in 2020 following the death of George Floyd.
Though Cooper said he would not veto the bill, he announced he would allow the legislation to become law without his signature, according to The Associated Press. The decision means Cooper will potentially delay an override from state lawmakers as the legislature has become more Republican since his 2021 veto.
Cooper’s choice not to veto the bill irritated social justice advocates who claim the measure restricts the right to protest and free speech, despite only increasing penalties for violent rioters and not peaceful protesters.
In a news release, Cooper said changes “were made to modify this legislation’s effect” following the veto two years ago, but the governor said he still had concerns surrounding the language.
“Property damage and violence are already illegal and my continuing concerns about the erosion of the First Amendment and the disparate impacts on communities of color will prevent me from signing this legislation,” he said.
In 2021, the Tar Heel state had enough Democrats in the House and Senate to uphold the first riot bill’s veto, but now the Republican-controlled Senate holds the power to override a veto. The House only requires one Democrat’s vote to have the same advantage.
Six House Democrats, including a chief sponsor of the bill, voted in support of the measure in February. In the Senate last Thursday, lawmakers passed the bill with a 27-16 vote — first-term Sen. Mary Wills Bode was the lone Democrat to vote in favor.
House Speaker Tim Moore strongly advocated for this year’s bill, as well as the one in 2021, by referencing the rioting and looting he witnessed in downtown Raleigh in June 2020. Moore said current laws are not enough of a deterrence to protect the public and property.
“Those who hijack otherwise peaceful demonstrations to cause chaos and destruction in our communities must be held accountable,” Moore said after Cooper’s announcement on Friday. “Our communities will be safer now that this bill will finally become law.”
The AP reported nearly 30 groups wrote the governor over the past week urging him to veto the measure, claiming it would intimidate people from speaking out in peaceful protests for fear of unjustified arrests.
“Laws like this have frequently been used to target peaceful protestors, especially minorities and those fighting against racial oppression,” said Sam Davis with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “We are disappointed that Gov. Cooper chose not to veto this unnecessary and unconstitutional law.”
Earlier this month, Moore, and other supporters, said the bill aims to protect the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters while keeping them, law enforcement and property owners safe from violence during any riot.
The new bill, which goes into effect in December, increases punishments already in place for those who participate or incite a riot to cover more severe circumstances like brandishing a weapon or causing serious bodily injury — possible resulting in longer prison sentences.
New crimes will also be created for a rioter who caused death or someone who incites rioting that contributes to a death, and assaults on emergency personnel will result in higher felony penalties. The bill will also let property owners who experience damage during protests to seek compensation from a perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damages.
Lastly, defendants accused of rioting or looting must wait 24 hours before their bond and pretrial release rules are set.
Cooper said Friday that lawmakers are discussing positive modifications to the bill, but he is still “concerned that this bill will legalize unfair treatment for those who need protection.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.