Recently, I had occasion to look up North Carolina law on cyberstalking (NC General Statutes 14-196.3).
Herbert Hyde, on the dust jacket
But the subject of today's story is what I found when I turned the page to NCGS 14-197:
If any person shall, on any public road or highway and in the hearing of two or more persons, in a loud and boisterous manner, use indecent or profane language, he shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor. The following counties shall be exempt from the provisions of this section: Pitt and Swain.
I already knew a little about this law and a legendary speech delivered by Swain County native Herbert Hyde in 1973. A colorful and brilliant attorney, Hyde was representing Buncombe County in the NC House when the proposal was made to drop the exemptions for Swain and Pitt.
Hyde’s oratorical skill was already well-known thanks to his propensity for peppering speeches with quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible. So the room went quiet when Herbert Hyde rose to defend the exemptions. In his own words, “there ought to be a refuge somewhere a man could go and that when he really is provoked he could say something with impunity."
His eight-minute speech was so popular that he released a recording of it during his 1976 run for lieutenant governor. In the past, I had gone looking for the recording (or at least a transcript) and had come up empty. However, NCGS 14-197 made headlines last month after an Orange County Superior Court judge declared it unconstitutional when a Chapel Hill woman was prosecuted under the law.
In the aftermath of that decision, several journalists recalled Herbert Hyde’s speech and the wonderful UNC Library has posted the recording. It really is a classic. A few excerpts:
My great uncle Fide Hyde told me that any man who had to work around a mule ought not to try to be a preacher because he’s bound to cuss….
You can’t cuss in Cherokee. Cherokee is a beautiful, romantic language. It has no harsh percussive sounds in it. The only letter where you have to close your lips in Cherokee is the letter “M” so you can talk all day and smile. You know, give the other feller a rough time, but you can smile the whole time….
This act is obviously unconstitutional, no question about it. But the fine folks in Swain wouldn’t want me to stand on that kind of technicality and I’m not going to do that….
We’re sacrificing the good name of a great county here by even suggesting that these people are going to get out on the streets and highways and in a loud and boisterous voice use indecent and profane language. Shakespeare once said, if I can quote it correctly, he says, “Who steals my purse steals trash. 'tis something, nothing; 'twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed." Now Swain County is a poor little county. It’s got very little left, nothing except its liberty and if you should take that away, and if you should filch from her her good name, she would be poor indeed.
Mr. Speaker, I say to this General Assembly, do not heap this indignity upon her fair head. Let her stand once again and lift her head in pride. Let her go forth even as an innocent woman in virtue, unsullied, unharmed and undamned by this iniquitous bill.
Reading the obituaries for Herbert Hyde, who passed away in 2006, I came across a quote he used in his campaign speeches:
I was born in a log cabin that I built with my own hands.
Writer Thad Stem once said that Hyde had "the eyes of Will Rogers and the tongue of Mark Twain."
In another obit, I learned that he attended Western Carolina University where he was student body president and editor of the college newspaper. I can’t help but reflect on how times have changed. There was a day when a country boy from Swain County might have found a hospitable setting for achieving his potential. But these days, I have to wonder if that same opportunity exists at WCU. I’m guessing some of the comments I read on a local website come from faculty members of that institution. If not, it’s an all-too- familiar attitude you hear from far too many folks who have moved to this community in recent years, including some of those at WCU. I hear this kind of stuff on a daily basis and it has worn thin, as far as I'm concerned. You might find it hard to believe, but the whine-and-cheese crowd of whom I speak in this instance has gotten its collective shorts in a wad over the fact that our community fails to offer one of the essentials of a civilized existence. And what is this crime against sophistication and good taste? What is the evidence of our gauche backwater's unbearable inadequacy?
"Our local supermarket doesn’t provide…
…an olive bar!"
I’d tell you what I really think of that. But, unfortunately, it’s still illegal to cuss in Jackson County.
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