(NEW YORK)—The North Carolina House rushed today to pass HB 40, which will harm the right to protest and chill civic engagement, PEN America said, noting the bill’s increased penalty provisions could result in protesters having their voting rights stripped, if convicted.

The bill increases penalties for inciting a riot to the felony level. “Inciting a riot” is a crime that is already vaguely worded in North Carolina and this bill would increase the risk that people could be arrested merely for attending a protest that results in violence they took no part in. A felony conviction in North Carolina strips the right to vote, which adds an additional risk that anyone arrested at a protest could lose their right to vote.

“HB 40 will harm core First Amendment rights and will create the risk that the government could use the law to restrict or deter speech it dislikes,” said Kate Ruane, US Free Expression Programs director at PEN America. “The new penalties and dangers this bill creates for protesters are egregious and risk infringing not just on protest rights but broader rights to civic participation. It should be obvious that no one should lose their right to vote for attending a protest, but North Carolina will create that risk if HB 40 becomes law.”

Ruane stated, “In the wake of the recent police killing of protester Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, and as the country prepares for the next national election, states should be acting to protect protesters’ rights, not suppress them.”

PEN America published Arresting Dissent: Legislative Restrictions on the Right to Protest, documenting a vast increase in state-level legislation introduced between 2015 and 2019 that would restrict the right to protest. In 2021, a follow-up report, Closing Ranks: State Legislators Deepen Assaults on the Right to Protest, documented a flood of additional legislation introduced following the 2020 protests against the murder of George Floyd.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org