You might have a foul mouth if you let a bit of profanity rip in public. But you no longer will be running afoul of state law - at least in Orange County.
An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled this week that a state ban on public cursing - a 98-year-old law that never applied to Pitt and Swain counties - is overly broad and unconstitutional. With that, representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina offered a few choice words of their own - jubilant ones, celebrating a basic right.
"This 98-year-old law is a blatant violation of the First Amendment," said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "We applaud the judge's ruling as an important victory for free speech."
The case stems from an incident that took place in Chapel Hill last February on Franklin Street, the college town's main drag.
Samantha Elabanjo, a 44-year-old woman familiar to police officers, was having a conversation near a bus stop and stepped into the street as a squad car approached. The officers in the car told her to move along, according to lawyers involved with the case, and she used a bit of profanity while calling their car "dirty."
Then, Elabanjo stepped back onto the sidewalk, waved her arms wildly and uttered another curse word to describe the officers.
Officers initially charged Elabanjo with disorderly conduct and using "indecent or profane language" in a "loud and boisterous manner" within earshot of two or more people on any public road or highway - a misdemeanor in North Carolina.
At Elabanjo's trial in July, an Orange District Court judge dismissed the disorderly conduct charge, but found her guilty of using profanity in the street, not the sidewalk.
Elabanjo appealed the conviction to Superior Court, and Judge Allen Baddour heard the case Monday. He dismissed the charge and on Wednesday issued a three-page ruling, a document that arrived in the mail at the ACLU late Friday.
Elabanjo, according to her attorney Matthew Quinn, was thrilled with the resolution of her case, but guarded with her speech afterward.
"She had a right to do what she did," Quinn said Friday. "But you don't want to stir a hornet's nest."
Pitt and Swain
The law, according to ACLU representatives, was adopted in 1913 after a very public kerfuffle in North Carolina. But several legislators didn't like the curb on speech and persuaded their colleagues to designate Pitt County, on the eastern side of the state, and Swain County, to the west, as places where Tar Heels could let words roar - as long as they complied with other behavior codes on the books.
The public cursing statute is rarely used these days, court officials say. Still, free speech advocates would like to see it taken off the books.
In his ruling, Baddour, son of UNC-Chapel Hill athletic director Dick Baddour, described the law as so broad that it "prohibits and criminalizes constitutionally protected speech, whether well-intentioned, but perhaps in poor taste (e.g., a protest or rally using profane language), high-spirited (e.g. profane but happy exaltation directed at no one in particular on Franklin Street by a zealous Tar Heel after a national championship), or otherwise."
The statute is unconstitutionally vague, Baddour further stated, because it leaves the public "uncertain as to the conduct it prohibits."
ACLU leaders laud the ruling as having statewide sweep. "The judge's decision constitutes a legal precedent that the law is unconstitutional," Rudinger said. "Anyone who proceeds with a prosecution after this is pretty much wasting their time and public dollars."
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