State’s Anti-Profanity Law Unconstitutional Rules Superior Court Judge

January 7, 2011 12:00 am

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RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) today applauded a judge’s ruling that declared North Carolina’s ban on the public use of profanity to be an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. The statute at issue is N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14 197, making it a misdemeanor offense to use “indecent or profane language” in a “loud and boisterous manner” within earshot of two or more people on any public road or highway in North Carolina. (Note: the law, adopted in 1913, exempts Pitt and Swain Counties from its scope but applies in all other counties in North Carolina.)

“This 98-year-old law is a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the ACLU-NCLF. “We applaud the judge’s ruling as an important victory for free speech. Our client, Samantha Elabanjo, never should have been charged with a crime just for saying ‘damn’ on a public street.”

On February 15, 2010, Samantha Elabanjo was engaged in conversation near a bus stop in Chapel Hill and stepped into Franklin Street as two Chapel Hill police officers drove by. The officers stopped their car and directed Ms. Elabanjo to move along. As she was returning to the sidewalk, she said to the officers, “You need to clean your damn dirty car.” Then, after she was back on the sidewalk, Ms. Elabanjo referred to the officers as “assholes.” At that point, the officers got out of their car and arrested her for disorderly conduct and for the use of profanity on a public roadway. The ACLU-NCLF took her case and defended Ms. Elabanjo against both charges. At trial in July 2010, the district court judge dismissed the disorderly conduct charge but found Ms. Elabanjo guilty of the use of profanity under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14 197 based on her use of the word “damn.”

She appealed her conviction to the Orange County Superior Court, and that appeal was argued by ACLU-NCLF Cooperating Attorney Matthew D. Quinn on January 3, 2011. Judge Allen Baddour dismissed the charges against Ms. Elabanjo, and on January 5th, he issued a three-page order declaring N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14 197 unconstitutionally vague and a violation of the First Amendment protection for freedom of speech.

The following statement may be attributed to Matthew D. Quinn, Cooperating Attorney for the ACLU-NCLF and Attorney for Samantha Elabanjo:

“We are very pleased with Judge Baddour's decision to dismiss the charge against our client for using profanity on a roadway. We have the utmost respect for police officers and their extremely difficult job. However, with very narrow exceptions, the United States Constitution protects all forms and types of speech, including speech that offends. We are lucky to live in a country in which even offensive and unpopular statements constitute protected speech, as the alternative is a country in which conformity is required and dissent is not tolerated. This ruling is a testament to the effectiveness of our judicial system, and reaffirms this nation's values.”

The case is State v. Samantha Elabanjo. Ms. Elabanjo was represented by Matthew D. Quinn of the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice, Jr. in Raleigh, as Cooperating Attorney for the ACLU-NCLF, and Katy Parker, Legal Director for the ACLU-NCLF.

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