NC Bill Restricting Wearing Masks During Protests Aimed At Campus Protesters

A proposed bill in North Carolina that would increase penalties for people wearing masks during protests or while committing crimes has drawn criticism for potentially making it illegal to wear masks in public for health reasons — which many are touting as a victory in and of itself. Republican supporters say the legislation was partly prompted by recent protests on university campuses, including UNC Chapel Hill, against Israel’s war in Gaza.

The bill, which passed its first committee on Tuesday, would enhance punishments for people using masks to disguise their identity during a crime or while intentionally blocking traffic during protests. However critics are primarily concerned about the removal of pandemic-era exemptions that allowed people to wear masks in public for medical reasons.

State Sen. Buck Newton (R) dismissed concerns that eliminating the health exemptions was overly broad, saying he expects authorities to use “good common sense.”

However, State Sen. Natasha Marcus (D) argued that the world has changed since the pandemic and that going back to pre-COVID times is not feasible.

Several speakers during public comment also voiced disapproval calling the legislation an “anti-protest bill” aimed at curbing free speech. Sen. Sydney Batch (D-Wake County) who said she was immunocompromised during the pandemic cited the health exemption removal as one of her biggest concerns.

Newton said he could revisit the bill if problems arise and plans to meet with Batch to discuss her issues before the bill reaches the Senate floor. The legislation is expected to pass the Senate but its prioritization in the House remains uncertain.