North Carolina bill criminalizing masking is a cheap political trick to target students

North Carolina’s lawmakers enjoy embarrassing my home state. That, or they simply do not care about their constituents. Those are the only things that could possibly explain their most recent crusade – keeping masks out of public spaces.

The “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals” bill would repeal language from an anti-masking state law that exempts wearing a mask “for the purpose of ensuring the physical health or safety of the wearer or others,” therefore criminalizing wearing one in public. The legislation also would enact harsher sentences for people convicted of crimes while wearing a mask.

The bill was prompted in part by student protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who have been wearing masks during pro-Palestinian actions.

Prior to a March 22 demonstration, the university provost reached out to the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, according to, asking that the students not wear masks because it “runs counter to our campus norms and is a violation of UNC policy and State law.”

A 1950s North Carolina law bans "wearing any mask, hood or device."

Punishing protesters would also punish the immunocompromised

Punishing protesters would have repercussions for immunocompromised people across the state and make North Carolina look foolish to the rest of the country.

It's one thing to punish students participating in peaceful protest, which I feel UNC's mostly were. This is a statewide legislation that would impact residents well after the protests are done.

Workers gather barricades around the American flag at the University of North Carolina on May 1, 2024, in Chapel Hill – a day after protesters removed the American flag and raised the Palestinian flag.
Workers gather barricades around the American flag at the University of North Carolina on May 1, 2024, in Chapel Hill – a day after protesters removed the American flag and raised the Palestinian flag.

One major incident that got attention in the state was the removal of the U.S. flag from the middle of campus, which was subsequently replaced with a Palestinian flag.

Student protesters were recently threatened with action by Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts, who specifically mentioned incidents where protesters blocked traffic and the exits of an administrative building and another where students covered the steps to the chancellor's office with red paint and messages.

The punishment of protesters who wear masks could be increased because of the proposed law, adding an extra element of criminalization to acts of disobedience. That gives it the potential to infringe on protesters' First Amendment rights.

Anti-masking bill revives an anti-KKK law

The initial law was passed in 1953 as a response to the Ku Klux Klan, whose members wore hooded regalia during rallies. It made it illegal for the members to wear their hoods in public.

It’s ironic to see something that was intended to fight racism be used in turn on people protesting the persecution of Palestinian people.

Why cancel graduations? Columbia cancels graduation ceremony because of student protests. It's the wrong choice.

The original law includes some exemptions, such as “holiday costumes” or jobs where masks are worn “for the purpose of ensuring the physical safety of the wearer.”

The language exempting health concerns was added in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aside from targeting protesters, this bill would make a target out of anyone wearing a surgical mask in public for the purpose of keeping themselves and others safe. COVID-19 is not a thing of the past, even if masking isn’t the norm anymore. People also wear masks for a variety of issues, including cancer.

Many immunocompromised people still wear masks in public to protect themselves, giving them a chance at normalcy.

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The North Carolina bill is pushing forward despite outcry

Despite facing criticism from doctors and activists, the legislation on Wednesday passed the North Carolina Senate with a 30-15 vote and without amendments proposed by Democrats. It heads back to the House; once passed, it will head to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat almost certain to veto the change.

Unfortunately, North Carolina Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly, meaning any veto would be overridden.

North Carolina’s elected officials only have to talk to medical professionals to see why this change in the law would be a bad idea. They don’t even have to look past their own colleagues: Democratic Sen. Sydney Batch pushed back on the bill, sharing the story of her family wearing masks while she was undergoing cancer treatment.

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"I should have the freedom – my children and my husband should have the freedom – to wear masks in order to protect and save my life, without fear of being arrested and charged," Batch told her colleagues last week.

It’s embarrassing that North Carolina lawmakers are more concerned about student protesters than their constituents' safety. It just gives people another reason to laugh at Southerners, something we already have to deal with because of regressive state-level politics. The only people who lose out are those who live in the state.

Masks should never have become this politicized in the first place; it’s frightening that we’re living in a time where the health of other people is ignored in favor of policing student activists. Republicans in North Carolina should think before acting on this bill.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: North Carolina bill bans wearing masks in public. What about freedom?