On September 17, 2020, Superior Court Judge Angela B. Puckett and Chief District Court Judge William F. Southern III issued an order prohibiting courthouse attendees in their districts from wearing masks containing any “emblem or writing,” possibly due to someone wearing a “Black Lives Matter” mask in their courtroom. Because the order does not commit to providing an alternative disposable mask to entrants, people could be barred from attending their scheduled court proceeding simply because of the mask they wear – even for something as innocuous as “Go Heels.”

Out of deep concern for this problematic order, Emancipate NC’s Dawn Blagrove and Elizabeth Simpson issued a letter to these judges, as well as Chief Justice Cherie Beasley, asked that they rescind their order immediately. You can read the full letter below:

Dear Judge Puckett and Judge Southern:

It has come to our attention that you have issued an Order, dated September 17, 2020, prohibiting courthouse attendees in your district from wearing masks containing any “emblem or writing.” We urge you to rescind this portion of Paragraph 6 of the Order, because it has the potential to violate individuals’ right to access the court, as well as the potential to violate their right to freedom of speech.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have become a regular part of individuals’ daily attire. Indeed, they are required in all North Carolina courthouses per the Chief Justice’s Order to protect public health. Many cloth masks do contain emblems or writing. Some of these messages are political in nature, while others are whimsical or signify fandom of a sports team or university. Whatever the case, barring an individual from attending their scheduled court proceeding because the mask they wear contains an “emblem or writing” runs a serious risk of causing them to incur a Failure to Appear or other penalty or hardship in their legal case if they do not have alternative attire on their person. We have noted that your Order does not commit to providing an alternative disposable mask to entrants.

The right to “access the court” can be conceptualized in a variety of ways: physical access to the space that comports with the Americans with Disabilities Act, access to quality and affordable attorney representation when one finds oneself facing a legal problem, ability to obtain court records or to pay the filing fee for a new cause of action, or a bit more esoterically, the capacity of an individual person to actually access justice, a notion that is lofty, yet unfortunately elusive for indigent people in our State. 

When a North Carolina resident is called to court, whether for a traffic infraction, criminal charge, or civil matter, it is their duty to attend. It is not voluntary and it is rarely relished. Let us not make it more difficult for them by banning them for wearing a mask that says “Go Heels.”

Your Order does assert that the courtroom is not a “designated public forum,” indicating that you are aware that you may be plodding into contested free speech territory. Indeed, we have heard a rumor that a “Black Lives Matter” mask may have started this ordeal. This is unfortunate, especially given that this message is finally being considered⏤in many quarters⏤to be a vanilla statement of universal truth, rather than an outrageous affront to white supremacy. 

This area of law⏤regarding speech messages on buttons and masks in courtrooms⏤is substantially unsettled, but we would contend that a courtroom is a “limited public forum.” Certainly, courts may be able to limit some expressive activities to maintain order, but discrimination based on viewpoint would never be permissible. We have been advised that court staff have, indeed, been enforcing the Order inconsistently, and apparently based on some measure of political discrimination. We sincerely doubt that most masks you are seeing are so inflammatory that any justified concept of “order” has been plausibly threatened. 

Please alter your Order to permit individuals to wear the mask of their choice.