Coates v. Cincinnati

United States Supreme Court

402 U.S. 611, 91 S. Ct. 1686, 29 L.Ed.2d 214 (1971)


Here the U.S. Supreme Court applies the vagueness and overbreadth doctrines to a local ordinance.

Mr. Justice Stewart delivered the opinion of the Court.

            A Cincinnati, Ohio, ordinance makes it a criminal offense for “three or more persons to assemble  ... on any of the sidewalks ... and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by...” The issue before us is whether this ordinance is unconstitutional on its face.


The appellants were convicted of violating the ordinance, and the convictions were ultimately affirmed by a closely divided vote in the Supreme Court of Ohio, upholding the constitutional validity of the ordinance. ... An appeal from that judgment was brought here and we noted probable jurisdiction. ... The record brought before the reviewing courts tells us no more than that the appellant Coates was a student involved in a demonstration and the other appellants were pickets involved in a labor dispute. For throughout this litigation it has been the appellants’ position that the ordinance on its face violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. ...


In rejecting this claim and affirming the convictions the Ohio Supreme Court did not give the ordinance any construction at variance with the apparent plain import of its language. The court simply stated:


The ordinance prohibits, inter alia, “conduct ... annoying to persons passing by.” The word “annoying” is a widely used and well understood word; it is not necessary to guess its meaning. “Annoying” is the present participle of the transitive verb “annoy” which means to trouble, to vex, to impede, to incommode, to provoke, to harass or to irritate.


We conclude ... that the ordinance “clearly and precisely delineates its reach in words of common understanding. It is a ‘precise and narrowly drawn regulatory statute [ordinance] evincing a legislative judgment that certain specific conduct be ... proscribed.’” ...


Beyond this, the only construction put upon the ordinance by the state court was its unexplained conclusion that “the standard of conduct which it specifies is not dependent upon each complainant’s sensitivity.” ... But the court did not indicate upon whose sensitivity a violation does depend---the sensitivity of the judge or jury, the sensitivity of the arresting officer, or the sensitivity of a hypothetical reasonable man.


We are thus relegated, at best, to the words of the ordinance itself. If three or more people meet together on a sidewalk or street corner, they must conduct themselves so as not to annoy any police officer or other person who should happen to pass by. In our opinion this ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because it subjects the exercise of the right of assembly to an unascertainable standard, and unconstitutionally broad because it authorizes the punishment of constitutionally protected conduct.


Conduct that annoys some people does not annoy others. Thus, the ordinance is vague, not in the sense that it requires a person to conform his conduct to an imprecise but comprehensible normative standard, but rather in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all. As a result, “men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning.”...


It is said that the ordinance is broad enough to encompass many types of conduct clearly within the city’s constitutional power to prohibit. And so, indeed, it is. The city is free to prevent people from blocking sidewalks, obstructing traffic, littering streets, committing assaults, or engaging in countless other forms of antisocial conduct. It can do so through the enactment and enforcement of ordinances directed with reasonable specificity toward the conduct to be prohibited. ... It cannot constitutionally do so through the enactment and enforcement of an ordinance whose violation may entirely depend upon whether or not a policeman is annoyed.


But the vice of the ordinance lies not alone in its violation of the due process standard of vagueness. The ordinance also violates the constitutional right of free assembly and association. Our decisions establish that mere public intolerance or animosity cannot be the basis for abridgement of these constitutional freedoms. ... The First and Fourteenth Amendments do not permit a State to make criminal the exercise of the right of assembly simply because its exercise may be “annoying” to some people. If this were not the rule, the right of the people to gather in public places for social or political purposes would be continually subject to summary suspension through the good-faith enforcement of a prohibition against annoying conduct. And such a prohibition, in addition, contains an obvious invitation to discriminatory enforcement against those whose association together is “annoying” because their ideas, their lifestyle, or their physical appearance is resented by the majority of their fellow citizens.


The ordinance before us makes a crime out of what under the Constitution cannot be a crime. It is aimed directly at activity protected by the Constitution. We need not lament that we do not have before us the details of the conduct found to be annoying. It is the ordinance on its face that sets the standard of conduct and warns against transgression. The details of the offense could no more serve to validate this ordinance than could the details of an offense charged under an ordinance suspending unconditionally the right of assembly and free speech. The judgment is reversed.



Mr. Justice White, with whom the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Blackmun join, dissenting.


The claim in this case, in part, is that the Cincinnati ordinance is so vague that it may not constitutionally be applied to any conduct. But the ordinance prohibits persons from assembling with others and “conduct[ing] themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by...” Any man of average comprehension should know that some kinds of conduct, such as assault or blocking passage on the street, will annoy others and are clearly covered by the “annoying conduct” standard of the ordinance. It would be frivolous to say that these and many other kinds of conduct are not within the foreseeable reach of the law.


It is possible that a whole range of other acts, defined with unconstitutional imprecision, is forbidden by the ordinance. But as a general rule, when a criminal charge is based on conduct constitutionally subject to proscription and clearly forbidden by a statute, it is no defense that the law would be unconstitutionally vague if applied to other behavior. Such a statute is not vague on its face. It may be vague as applied in some circumstances, but ruling on such a challenge obviously requires knowledge of the conduct with which a defendant is charged. ...


In the case before us, I would deal with the Cincinnati ordinance as we would with the ordinary criminal statute. The ordinance clearly reaches certain conduct but may be illegally vague with respect to other conduct. The statute is not infirm on its face and since we have no information from this record as to what conduct was charged against these defendants, we are in no position to judge the statute as applied. That the ordinance may confer wide discretion in a wide range of circumstances is irrelevant when we may be dealing with conduct at its core.


I would therefore affirm the judgment of the Ohio Supreme Court.