When hundreds of anti-choice zealots marched outside a health clinic last month, Charlotte’s noise ordinance limited the harassment and heckling they could heap on women seeking care.
The city’s code prevented protesters from using amplified sound too close to the facility and cordoned off certain areas in front of the doctor’s office to create room for women to safely access the building without running a gauntlet of hostility and intimidation.
The event was a larger version of the organized badgering that the group and its allies direct every week at women exercising their right to choose to terminate their pregnancies through safe, legal abortions at A Preferred Women’s Health Center in southeastern Charlotte.
Their harassment of women takes many forms, including displaying graphic, misleading pictures of supposedly aborted fetuses; disingenuously offering help (medical or otherwise) to pregnant women; making scientifically unfounded allegations about fetal pain and personhood; and loudly condemning women as murderers.
Until recently, patients could at least take comfort knowing local ordinances kept protesters at arm’s length, physically and aurally.
But no more: The city’s rules were recently rendered unenforceable by a new state law that blindsided Charlotte’s elected officials.
City Council amended its noise ordinance in 2019 to prevent the use of amplified noise within 150 feet of a healthcare facility and to prohibit “intentional” or “unreasonably” loud noise within the 150-foot buffer zone.
The text adopted by Council didn’t mention abortion, and a press release issued by the city said a booming population prompted the need for revisions: “Significant growth and development in the Uptown area and throughout the city have created a need for revisions,” it stated.
This fooled no one.
A handful of pro-choice advocates disrupted the meeting at which Council considered the code changes, and police arrested three protesters. Members of Love Life, who suspected the proposed amendments would hinder their ability to harass women, filled the meeting chamber to urge Council to reject revisions to the noise ordinance.
About 120 people spoke for or against the changes before Council voted, and many of those speakers referenced the protests at the women’s clinic. Council members discussed the proposed revisions in terms of abortion rights, and local and national media reported the updated ordinance’s adoption as a win for the pro-choice movement.
Changes to the noise ordinance were about the rights of women.
So, too, is the noise ordinance’s (hopefully temporary) demise.
In September 2021, Governor Roy Cooper signed into law a bill prohibiting cities from criminalizing local ordinance violations unless the municipalities’ governing bodies expressly state in their codes that a violation carries criminal penalties. The bill, which had been winding its way through the General Assembly since March 2021, represents a noble attempt to rollback the over-criminalization of America. (For example, the law allows those accused of committing a violation of a local ordinance to avoid criminal liability if the accused “provides proof of a good-faith effort to seek assistance to address any underlying factors related to unemployment, homelessness, mental health, or substance abuse that might relate to the person’s ability to comply with the local ordinance.” The law thus constitutes a much-needed attempt to decriminalize poverty, mental illness, and addiction.)
As a practical matter, the bill functions as a municipal reset button, requiring cities to review their ordinances and again decide which ones they believe should be backed up by criminal penalties.
WSOC’s Genevieve Curtis reported earlier this month that in the wake of the law’s enactment, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Deputy Chief Steven Brochu sent an email to officers telling them that as of December 1, 2021, the new law prevented CMPD from criminally charging anyone with violating local ordinances, in part rendering the city’s code — including the noise ordinance — an unenforceable dead letter. (The law doesn’t affect the enforceability of state laws. It also doesn’t stop local authorities from issuing civil fines.)
He further explained, “Plans to amend the code to allow certain ordinances to remain crimes are already underway.” Brochu said he hoped the new provisions would be adopted in “early 2022.”
All of this was news to Charlotte’s elected officials.
As Curtis explained earlier this month, “City council members appeared to have been left in the dark about the change and many told Channel 9 they had no idea this had taken place. When reporter Joe Bruno texted several of them Thursday night for comment, one responded: ‘Is this real?'”
Baker explained that prior to the law’s passage, Charlotte included in its code a “default provision” that “generally designated many of our ordinances as subject to criminal enforcement.” The new law rendered this provision ineffective and, as a result, the city’s code — including its noise ordinance — cannot be criminally enforced unless and until Council expressly votes to do so.
He explained city employees have been working since September to review the code book and hoped to have a proposal for Council to consider in late January 2022. (Apparently no one had told Council this work was underway until reporters started asking questions earlier this month, prompting Baker’s email to elected officials.)
Councilman Larken Egleston, who serves as chairman of the city’s public safety committee, told WFAE that in the meantime, he doesn’t think the unavailability of criminal enforcement of city ordinances is much to worry about.
“I don’t think we’re taking away the ability of our police officers to handle situations that involve serious crimes or violent crimes or anything of that sort. These are more petty crimes,” he said.
Of course, there’s nothing petty about forcing women to face a close-up campaign of organized harassment as a condition of accessing healthcare, something they must now do because Egleston and other city officials were unprepared for a long-known change in the law.