Read our words: No new laws

By Corey Friedman

When the North Carolina General Assembly reconvenes later this month, a flurry of new bills will flood House and Senate committees. Some would add pages to the state’s already voluminous lawbooks, and we’re not convinced that’s a good thing.

The complete 168 chapters of the N.C. General Statutes fill 21 softbound volumes, comprising thousands of pages. One set costs $517, more than the complete 16-volume 2012 Britannica Student Encyclopedia.

It’s often said that ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it. But if someone can be arrested, convicted and imprisoned for running afoul of an obscure or outmoded statute buried among our state’s 21 volumes, has justice truly been served?

Even top-flight attorneys, policy wonks and serious scholars can’t commit our bloated legal code to memory. How likely is the average North Carolinian to know with confidence and certainty that his or her conduct is always statutorily sanctioned?

“The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws,”concluded Tacitus, a 1st century Roman senator. Little-known codes and canons can be subject to abuse through selective enforcement. All should be equal under the law.

Clear and reasonable laws targeting those who harm people or property are necessary. But many rules restrict personal liberty for no legitimate reason. It’s these needless laws that concern us most.

Before the General Assembly passes the first new law of 2013, we hope legislators will repeal some of the state’s many cumbersome codes.

Some of North Carolina’s worst laws are those that violate residents’ First Amendment right to free speech under the United States Constitution. Even the one a court struck down in 2011 remains on the lawbooks today.

Chapel Hill police in 2010 charged a woman with violating a profanity law for saying “damn” and directing a vulgar epithet at officers near a bus stop. The law, N.C. General Statute 14-197, bans “indecent or profane language”when used “on any public road or highway and in the hearing of two or more persons.”

There are a few narrow categories of speech the First Amendment doesn’t protect, but language that’s “indecent” or even “profane” falls well below the constitutional standard of obscenity.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour dismissed the charge in January 2011, finding in a three-page order that the law is unconstitutionally vague and violates the First Amendment. Lawmakers have yet to strike it from the books.

A related law prohibits the use of “any words or language of a profane, vulgar, lewd, lascivious or indecent character, nature or connotation” in telephone calls. We can’t imagine this statute is enforced often, if ever, but its continued existence is nevertheless a threat to free speech.

Among the latest bad laws to take effect targets students who create websites or online profiles that mock school staffers. The School Violence Prevention Act defines such conduct as cyberbullying a school official, a Class 2 misdemeanor carrying a punishment of up to 30 days in jail.

Federal appeals courts have ruled that parody pages that poke fun at principals and teachers are protected speech under the First Amendment. North Carolina is bucking the Bill of Rights because lawmakers would rather protect school officials from hurt feelings than shield young citizens from censorship. We believe they have their priorities backward.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said the law also could be used to punish students who disagree with administrators’decisions in Facebook postings or even someone who exposes an inappropriate teacher-student relationship.

This year and in the future, there will be cases where new laws are justified. But we hope lawmakers focus their efforts on repeal and reform instead of contributing to the exponential growth of our statute books.

There’s still plenty for legislators to do, starting with stripping away the bad laws that suppress speech and limit personal freedom. Existing laws can be made clearer; loose language can be tightened.

We challenge the 2013 General Assembly to strive for no net gain in the total number of laws. For every rule our representatives see fit to add, there’s at least one they ought to subtract.

[Note: This post originally appeared in The Wilson Times.]

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