A frequent protester at Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Graham during the second half of 2020 has filed a new lawsuit against Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson over alleged First Amendment violations.
Maurice Wells, Jr., 36, black male, had previously filed a similar suit against Johnson, just two months before Johnson sought reelection to a fifth term as sheriff in the November 2022 general election – and the first race since 2010 in which he faced a Democratic challenger.
Wells’ first suit against Johnson was later transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina because the case centered on “a federal question” – namely the alleged violation of Wells’ First Amendment rights – according to the federal case file.
Three weeks after the general election, on November 21, Wells voluntarily dismissed the suit without prejudice, a caveat that gave Wells up to a year to re-file the suit, providing that the statute of limitations hadn’t expired, in keeping with state and federal rules of civil procedure.
In both the earlier and the current suit, Wells alleges that Johnson unlawfully arrested him for misdemeanor failure to disperse and disorderly conduct during a BLM protest in downtown Graham on July 11, 2020. Wells contends that Johnson unfairly targeted him because he didn’t like the content of his constitutionally-protected speech.
A retired visiting district court judge from Orange County later found Wells guilty of misdemeanor failure to disperse and disorderly conduct during a bench trial in Alamance County district court in March 2021. He has appealed his convictions to superior court, where the case remains pending, according to both suits that Wells has filed against Johnson.
The new suit, filed late last Wednesday afternoon in Alamance County civil superior court, outlines the same allegations as the earlier suit: that on July 11, 2020, counterprotesters – specifically members of a group called Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC) and its founders, Gary Williamson, Sr. and Gary Williamson, Jr. – repeatedly rang the bell in Sesquicentennial Park as BLM speakers attempted to address marchers at the BLM rally, making it virtually impossible to hear the speeches.
Wells argues that when he followed suit – ringing the bell, while singing the bridge from the 1970s disco hit “Ring My Bell – he was arrested; none of the counterprotesters was charged.
In his suit, Wells recalls that the Williamsons had asked sheriff’s deputies who were at the scene to make Wells stop ringing the bell and make him leave the park.
Johnson was summoned by deputies to Sesquicentennial Park to address the situation, when Wells shouted, “This is our [expletive] bell, and I am going to ring the [expletive] bell,” the plaintiff acknowledges in his suit, adding that counter-protesters had used “similar language to address BLM protesters.”
Wells alleges that he was forcibly removed from the park, and Johnson “personally arrested him,” though he was taken into custody at Johnson’s direction by a Graham police officer, identified in the suit as Kayla Belk. Video recorded during the arrest purportedly showed Johnson “telling members of the public who were at the scene that Wells had been arrested because he had used language that ‘was not decent,’” the suit asserts.
Nonetheless, Wells contends that, during the encounter on July 11, 2020, he hadn’t touched anyone, gotten close to touching anyone, or used any language that was likely to provoke a “violent physical confrontation.”
Wells alleges that his arrest deprived him of his constitutional rights of free speech and assembly, and that Johnson’s actions unlawfully suppressed Wells’ protected speech in what has previously been established as a proper public forum, Sesquicentennial Park, for the exercise of First Amendment rights.
“When he was arrested, Mr. Wells was ringing the old courthouse bell, which was expressive conduct,” the complaint states. “He intended to convey at least two messages: (1) that the public forum consisting of Sesquicentennial Park and its bell [since removed] are not within the exclusive domain and control of the Williamsons, ACTBAC, or their message of paying homage to the former Confederacy; and (2) that Sesquicentennial Park and its bell also can be used to convey and highlight political messages supportive of the BLM demonstrators.”
Wells notes in his complaint that, at the time of his arrest, he was singing, “You can right my bell, ring my bell,” the chorus to the 1979 hit by Anita Ward. “This lyric has no language that removes it from the protection of the First Amendment – it is neither obscene nor libelous; it does not incite others to commit violent acts; and it does not contain direct personal insults likely to immediately provoke acts of violence,” the suit asserts.
Wells further contends that the profanity he used that afternoon was constitutionally-protected speech. “In this context, the word [mother-expletive] is impassioned rhetoric that conveys the depth of Mr. Wells’ commitment to using the bell to express his political message,” he states in his suit against the sheriff. “He did not direct the term at the counterprotesters or use it as a personal epithet. Similarly, when Mr. Wells told Sheriff Johnson, ‘take me to [mother-expletive] jail,’ and the [expletive] expressed the intensity of Mr. Wells’ feelings about his imminent arrest…In this context, [mother-expletive] and [expletive] are not obscene, libelous, fighting words, or incitement, but instead are speech fully protected by the First Amendment.”
The First Amendments limits the state’s disorderly conduct statute to “the prohibition of fighting words…tending to cause an immediate breach of the peace,” according to Wells’ suit. Likewise, the state’s failure to disperse statute is “limited by the First Amendment, which narrowly defines incitement as words intended to cause imminent lawless behavior,” the complaint states, citing a 1975 precedent issued by the North Carolina Supreme Court.
‘Part of a pattern and practice’
Wells alleges that his arrest “was part of a pattern and practice” by which the Alamance County sheriff’s office repeatedly “suppressed the right of protesters to speak on matters of public concern following the death of George Floyd.”
Wells acknowledges his subsequent arrest, for misdemeanor resisting a public officer and injury to personal property, during a BLM protest on September 26, 2020; though not mentioned in his complaint, those charges were later dismissed in March 2021, during a bench trial presided over by the same visiting retired judge from Orange County, Lunsford Long.
Wells also alleges his arrest on July 11, 2020 was retaliatory and politically-motivated. “Sheriff Johnson’s political interests as Alamance County Sheriff were served by suppressing Mr. Wells’ speech because his message contradicts the views of a sizable portion of Sheriff Johnson’s political voting base,” his suit asserts. Wells contends that there had been no probable cause for his arrest, and even if it had existed, “the similarly-situated Williamsons were not arrested.”
According to the BLM activist’s suit, “Sheriff Johnson is personal friends with the Williamsons and coached [Gary] Williamson, Jr. in football at Southern Alamance High School,” and that by a passing gesture – putting his arm around Gary Williamson, Jr. at the July 2020 protest – Johnson “illustrated his solidarity with and support for ACTBAC,” the complaint alleges.
Wells is asking a superior court judge to issue a declaratory judgment, affirming his claim that his arrest on July 11, 2020 had been improper. “Mr. Wells’ participation in the July 2020 demonstration was not an isolated event, and without a declaration that his arrest was improper, Mr. Wells is uncertain as to how he can exercise his constitutional rights when speaking and acting during future protests,” his complaint states. Wells is also seeking a declaratory judgment, which would establish that the charges of disorderly conduct and failure to disperse constituted unconstitutional “suppression and retaliation” of his rights guaranteed by the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Wells is being represented by Cory Patterson and Lorin J. Lapidus of the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough law firm in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, respectively, as well as by Sarah Ludington and C. Amanda Martin with the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School. (The same attorneys represented Wells for the first suit he filed against Johnson in September 2022 and voluntarily dismissed in November 2022.)
A response had not been filed for the sheriff by press time.
The latest suit against the sheriff follows a string of previous federal suits surrounding the 2020 protests in downtown Graham and filed by BLM activists against the sheriff’s office, the county, Graham police department, and the city of Graham. The insurance carriers for those local government entities settled the most substantive suit – filed by the organizer of the July 2020 protest and a subsequent protest in October 2020, Rev. Gregory Drumwright – out-of-court in exchange for monetary damages; none of the defendants admitted guilt. Wells had not been in plaintiff in those earlier suits.