Profanity law’s repeal a good step toward reform

By Corey Friedman

Those coarse words that escape many a driver’s lips in a traffic jam can no longer land you behind bars in North Carolina.DSC_0532

The Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, a housecleaning bill designed to streamline the state’s rulebooks, includes the repeal of a 1913 profanity law that banned the use of colorful language on North Carolina’s public highways.

It’s a move that was long overdue. The statute couldn’t pass constitutional muster the day it was enacted. It sat stubbornly in the lawbooks for 102 years, thumbing its nose at the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech for American citizens in public spaces.

In 2011, Orange County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour granted a motion to dismiss the profanity charge against Samantha Elabanjo, who was accused of telling Chapel Hill police officers to clean their “damn dirty car” and calling them a vulgar name.

Baddour found the law to be vague and overbroad, writing in a Jan. 5, 2011 order that it “prohibits and criminalizes constitutionally protected speech.”

The 1913 statute “defines neither ‘indecent’ nor ‘profane,’ and thus leaves to the imagination, or to an officer’s discretion, what those terms mean and which words used in what context would be prohibited,” Baddour wrote.

“There is no longer any consensus, if there ever was, on what words in the modern American lexicon are ‘indecent’ or ‘profane,’” the judge concluded. “A reasonable person cannot be certain before she acts that her language is not violative of this law, and it is therefore unconstitutionally vague.”

Baddour’s ruling set a legal precedent, but it didn’t strike down the law statewide. Wilson police charged 37-year-old Joey Ricky Carson with the Class 3 misdemeanor in December 2013 for allegedly cussing at officers who approached his parked car.

While we’d never encourage people to curse at a law enforcement officer — or, for that matter, direct aggressive and vulgar language toward anyone — we acknowledge that the First Amendment protects this form of self-expression.

A century too late, state lawmakers reached the same conclusion.

Two obsolete statutes were stricken from the lawbooks in the 61-page regulatory reform act Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law on Oct. 22. The other prohibited “refusing to relinquish party telephone line in an emergency.”

It’s about time. Southern Bell started phasing out North Carolina’s remaining party lines in 1971.

We’re encouraged to see lawmakers taking a hard look at some of the state’s unnecessary and outmoded statutes with an eye toward simplification. As we’ve said in this space before, North Carolina has too many laws — more than even the most studious citizen or learned legal scholar could commit to memory.

When people don’t know the law, they can’t be certain their conduct is lawful. The more we fear running afoul of some obscure codicil buried in a musty rulebook, the less liberty we have to lead free and full lives.

The General Assembly ought to consider repealing one old statute for every new law it passes. Scrapping two obvious outliers only scratches the surface. Nevertheless, it’s a small step in the right direction.

[Note: This originally ran as an editorial in the Richmond County Daily Journal in December 2015.]

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