Are Secret Societies Legal in North Carolina?

State law prohibits secret societies for illegal purposes

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on November 30, 2023

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Groups such as the Freemasons, Elks, and Shriners are present in many communities throughout the United States, where they enjoy fraternity and engage in charitable activities.

Many people, whether a member of a fraternal organization or not, may be surprised to learn of North Carolina laws regulating the activities of “secret societies” in the state.

North Carolina Law Prohibits Creating Secret Societies for Illegal Purposes

Under North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 14 Article 4A, it is illegal to be a part of a secret society engaged in activities that violate the laws of the state. However, the law also makes it illegal to wear a mask or make-up that obscures one’s face or voice on any street or public property. Having any signs, handshakes, passwords, or oaths that aren’t for legal purposes is also illegal.

These laws make sense in the context of known hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, or with criminal operations like gangs.

But in 2018, a group of younger citizens surrounded a statue of a Confederate soldier on the UNC Chapel Hill campus and brought it down. Law enforcement arrested one individual for concealing their face during a public rally—under the same law preventing secret organizations from hiding their faces. The law states that any group of two or more people organized for a combined or common purpose is considered a secret society.

How Secretive “Secret Meetings” Really Are

Further, if your secret society would like to gather at a regular meeting place, such as a grand lodge, it may not be able to be as clandestine as you think.

If a group is meeting regularly, they are obligated to post a placard or sign that clearly identifies the name, unit, and any numbers associated with the meeting, as well as the officers of the organization and those who will succeed these members if they are no longer a part of the organization.

This list of leaders must include a secretary—who knows the purpose of the society and holds lists of all members and their addresses. The law also requires any secret society that holds regular meetings to continue to hold them in the same place, or to post notice of a venue change in a public newspaper.

It would be the smartest course of action to consult with a reputable and experienced civil rights attorney if you are considering joining a secret society for the first time or starting one. If you have been arrested or charged under the North Carolina law on secret societies, seek the services of a criminal defense attorney

For more information on this area of law, see our overview of criminal defense.

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