Constitutional rights a hot topic during pandemic

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The quiet air of closed schools and businesses juxtaposed with the noise of streets packed with angry voters is as stark a contrast as the various interpretations of the United States Constitution.

“I’m coming out here to support my fellow patriots and just remind them we’re still alive and well and we need our constitutional rights. We need the old 1776 normal of the Founding Fathers, and anything else is just tyranny,” said Stephen Wagner at a recent protest in downtown Raleigh to open North Carolina’s businesses, which were closed by order of Gov. Roy Cooper.

That order was put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. Constitutional rights have been a hot topic throughout the outbreak. It’s included discussions about freedom of speech, religion, and the right to bear arms.

But it’s not that easy. Political scientists and constitutional scholars argue parts of the Constitution aren’t absolute. It isn’t cut and dry when it comes to civil liberties named in America’s most precious document.

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“I think when people scream everything they do should be justified by the First Amendment or the Second Amendment, that’s not really an accurate interpretation of either what the founders intended or what public officials need to keep in mind as they keep the business of the public going,” said Meredith College political science professor David McLennan.

There’s an adage that says freedom of speech doesn’t let someone scream “fire” in a crowded movie theater. There are laws that can be applied to it. Speech can’t be used to slander, incite violence, or plagiarize. Protests like the teacher marches in Raleigh still have rules they need to follow. Protests inside the General Assembly can only occur at certain times. Demonstrations on the street need a permit.

Federal, state and local government can each make their own laws when it comes to the Second Amendment, as well.

“In this particular case, in North Carolina we have a state law that restricts people from bringing handguns to protests, as well as funerals and other things,” McLennan said. “That has been upheld a number of times, so even though people see the right to possess firearms and carry firearms as an absolute, it’s far from that.”

It’s oftentimes up to the courts to rule on interpretations. That’s what happened when a U.S. district court judge recently said Cooper’s executive stay-at-home order violated freedom of religion, thus temporarily clearing the way for churches to reopen.

A Raleigh firm is also threatening to sue the state unless hair salons are allowed to open during Phase Two.

McLennan hedges his bets on the Supreme Court hearing a lot of similar arguments. After all, that’s what it’s there for.

“Those nine justices will ultimately be asked their opinion on a number of these cases,” he said.

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