A frequent protester at the Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Graham during the second half of 2020 has filed a civil suit against Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights.
Maurice Wells, Jr., 36, black male, had been charged with misdemeanor failure to disperse and disorderly conduct on July 11, 2020, at the conclusion of a march in downtown Graham that eventually culminated in a dispute over the bell that, since 1999, had been located in the center of Sesquicentenial Park. (Wells’ address was listed on a magistrate’s order issued at the time as 10 Aspen Drive, Apartment A, in Greensboro.)
Wells was subsequently convicted of both charges at his trial in Alamance County district court on March 24, 2021. He has appealed his conviction to superior court, where the case remains pending, according to his lawsuit against the sheriff.
In his suit, Wells asserts that, during the protest on July 11, 2020, counter-protesters – including “members of a group called Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County” (ACTBAC) – repeatedly rang the bell in Sesquicentenial Park as several Black Lives Matter speakers attempted to address the marchers, interfering with the ability to hear the speeches.
“Officers from the Alamance County sheriff’s office who were at the scene did not instruct the counter-demonstrators to stop ringing the bell during the BLM demonstration and did not direct them to disperse.” – Allegations in lawsuit against sheriff Terry Johnson by Maurice Wells, Jr.
Wells eventually took his turn at ringing the bell, as he danced, laughed, and sang “You can ring my bell,” the bridge in the 1970s disco song by Anita Ward, based on testimony given at his trial in district court in March 2021, which is recounted in the lawsuit against the sheriff.
Wells contends in his suit that, while the counter-protesters had been given free rein, he was not. “Officers from the Alamance County sheriff’s office who were at the scene did not instruct the counter-demonstrators to stop ringing the bell during the BLM demonstration and did not direct them to disperse,” the complaint states.
However, Wells contends that the founders of ACTBAC, whom he identifies as Gary Williamson, Sr. and his son, Gary Williamson, Jr., asked the sheriff’s deputies who were at the scene “to compel Mr. Wells to stop ringing the bell” and to leave.
“As a result of the Williamsons’ complaints, sheriff Johnson was personally called to Sesquicentenial Park to address the situation,” the suit asserts.
Wells further alleges that the sheriff put his arm around Gary Williamson, Jr.’s shoulder, while warning him to leave or else face arrest. “The Williamsons did not comply with sheriff Johnson’s directions and remained at the park,” the complaint states, noting that neither the elder nor younger Williamson was arrested that day.
According to Wells’ suit, Johnson then turned to him and said, “‘Son, quit ringing the bell or you’re going to jail.’” Wells responded by telling the sheriff that “he intended to continue singing and ringing the bell in peaceable protest and stated, ‘take me to [expletive] jail,’” he recalls in his suit.
“Take me to [expletive] jail,” Wells told sheriff Terry Johnson during a confrontation at Sesquicentennial Park across from the Historic Court House on July 11, 2020, during one of many BLM-related protests that year.
Wells contends that Johnson initially told members of the public that day that Wells had been arrested because of his indecent language but later said he had been arrested because “Wells was inciting a fight.”
In his suit and during his trial in district court last year, Wells countered that he had not touched anyone nor given any appearance that he was likely to engage in a physical confrontation. Several witnesses who testified at Wells’ trial in district court in March 2021 acknowledged hearing him use profanity a number of times but said they hadn’t seen him saying or doing anything violent.
Both then and now, Wells’ attorneys have argued that profanity is protected under the First Amendment. “Mr. Wells also engaged in protected speech when he used the words ‘mother [expletive]’ and ‘[expletive]’ in his interactions with the counter-protesters and sheriff,” the complaint states. Wells acknowledges telling the counter-protesters, ‘This is our mother [expletive] bell, and I am going to ring the mother [expletive] bell.’”
Lawsuit alleges sheriff “based. . . his decision [in arresting Wells but not Williamson] to disfavor the speech of people of color when applying and enforcing the law in Alamance County.”
Wells contends that he was the only person arrested at the protest on July 11, 2020, which he claims deprived him of “his First Amendment to speak and engage in expressive conduct in a public forum, during and following the BLM demonstration,” the complaint states. He contends that Johnson’s actions were “based on his decision to disfavor the speech of people of color when applying and enforcing the law in Alamance County,” the suit alleges.
Wells claims in his suit that Johnson had retaliated solely against him for exercising his First Amendment rights on July 11, 2020.
The state Supreme Court has established, “The First Amendment limits North Carolina’s disorderly conduct statute to the prohibition of fighting words, defined as ‘words tending to cause an immediate breach of the peace willfully spoken in a public place,’” Wells asserts.
“Fighting words are a narrow category of speech, consisting only of words that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. Speech that is merely vulgar or offensive does not constitute fighting words.”
Moreover, North Carolina’s failure to disperse statue is aimed at “forestalling riots” but is limited by the First Amendment, “which narrowly defines incitement as words intended to cause imminent lawless behavior,” the complaint states.
Wells asserts that Johnson’s order directing him to disperse “was an invalid and unlawful police command lacking in probable cause because there were no objectively reasonable grounds – consistent with the federal Constitution – to believe that Wells’ speech and expressive conduct were inciting an imminent riot or would likely do so,” according to his suit.
A second marcher had, in fact, been arrested that day: Dexter Elijah McKoy, also of Greensboro, was charged with misdemeanor second-degree trespass. The event organizer, Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro, later confirmed for The Alamance News that McKoy is his son and that the charge was ultimately dismissed due to a misunderstanding of the circumstances that had prompted McKoy’s arrest.
In a separate case, Wells was found not guilty of three other misdemeanor charges stemming from a BLM protest in Court Square on September 26, 2020, in which he had been accused of striking an oncoming vehicle with a flagpole while he was in the middle of a crosswalk between the Historic Court House and 100 block of West Elm Street. Neither the video footage introduced nor testimony given at that trial, earlier in March 2021, definitively established whether Wells or the driver had arrived at the crosswalk first.
Wells is seeking more than $25,000 in damages, as well as interest, court costs, and his attorney’s fees. He is being represented by Cory Patterson, Lorin J. Lapidus, and Chelsea K. Barnes of the Nelson Mullins law firm in Charlotte and Winston-Salem; and by Sarah Ludington and C. Amanda Martin of the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School in Durham.
Johnson had not been served with a summons in the suit by press time Wednesday, according to the court file.