Cursing in public might still be frowned upon, but at least it will no longer be a crime.
Orange County Superior Court judge Allen Baddour struck down last Monday a 98-year old law, which prohibits any person from using indecent or profane language within the earshot of two or more people while on a public road.
The case was brought to court after Chapel Hill resident Samantha Elabanjo was arrested last February for profanity on a public highway after cursing at two police officers.
Elabanjo said she used the words “damn” and “asshole” while standing by a bus stop on Franklin Street.
At a trial in July, Elabanjo was found guilty on the profanity charge.
But the ruling was overturned by Baddour on the grounds that the ban against profanity is both too broad and unconstitutional.
Matthew Quinn, an attorney cooperating with the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Elabanjo in her appeal, said the ban was unconstitutional because his client is protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech.
“This is a matter of constitutional right,” he said.
“Irrespective of my client’s behavior, the law is vague in determining what counts as profanity.
“I have no idea what is indecent or is profane, and nobody else does for that matter,” Quinn said.
He said the case will now act as a precedent for other free speech violations.
It would be difficult for anyone in Orange County to be convicted with this charge again, Quinn said.
However, the Orange and Chatham County District Attorney Jim Woodall said he is unsure of the significance of the case.
“I’m not indicating that it’s not important — constitutional rights are imperative matters — but profanity on a public highway is seldom a single charge,” Woodall said.
“It’s usually a charge in conjunction with others,” he said.
Baddour said in an e-mail his ruling was case-specific and would not have immediate statewide effect.
He also said that the charge is one rarely seen in the Superior Court.
Woodall said the approach of Elabanjo’s defense in emphasizing constitutional rights played a role in the different rulings.
“Her lawyers conceded that she was acting inappropriately,” he said of the trial in July.
Woodall, like Quinn, said he could not provide specific examples of profane words.
“There’s been debate from the public that the First Amendment protects freedom of political speech and not profanity, and that the ban is enacted to keep the peace,” Quinn said.
Elabanjo said she is pleased with the ruling and happy with the outcome of the appeal.
She said she was provoked by the police officers and should not have been arrested for her behavior.
“The police just need to let us be,” Elabanjo said.
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