336 U.S. 77 (1949), 9, Kovacs v. Cooper

Docket Nº:No. 9
Citation:336 U.S. 77, 69 S.Ct. 448, 93 L.Ed. 513
Party Name:Kovacs v. Cooper
Case Date:January 31, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court

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336 U.S. 77 (1949)

69 S.Ct. 448, 93 L.Ed. 513




No. 9

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 31, 1949

Submitted October 11, 1948




An ordinance of Trenton, New Jersey, forbids the use or operation on the public streets of a "sound truck" or of any instrument which emits "loud and raucous noises" and is attached to a vehicle on the public streets.

Held: As applied to the defendant in this case, it does not infringe the right of free speech in violation of the First Amendment, made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 78-79, 89.

135 N.J.L. 584, 52 A.2d 806, affirmed.

Appellant was convicted in Police Court for violation of an ordinance of Trenton, New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the conviction, 135 N.J.L. 64, 50 A.2d 451, and the Court of Errors and Appeals affirmed by an equally divided court. 135 N.J.L. 584, 52 A.2d 806. On appeal to this Court, affirmed, p. 89.

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REED, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REED announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BURTON join.

This appeal involves the validity of a provision of Ordinance No. 430 of the City of Trenton, New Jersey. It reads as follows:

4. That it shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation, either as principal, agent or employee, to play, use or operate for advertising purposes, or for any other purpose whatsoever, on or upon the public streets, alleys or thoroughfares in the City of Trenton, any device known as a sound truck, loudspeaker or sound amplifier, or radio or phonograph with a loudspeaker or sound amplifier, or any other instrument known as a calliope or any instrument of any kind or character which emits therefrom loud and raucous noises and is attached to and upon any vehicle operated or standing upon said streets or public places aforementioned.

The appellant was found guilty of violating this ordinance by the appellee, a police judge of the City of Trenton. His conviction was upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court, Kovacs v. Cooper, 135 N.J.L. 64, 50 A.2d 451, and the judgment was affirmed without a majority opinion by the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals in an equally divided court. The dissents are printed. 135 N.J.L. 584, 52 A.2d 806.

We took jurisdiction1 to consider the challenge made to the constitutionality of the section on its face and as applied on the ground that § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was violated because the section and the conviction are in contravention

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of rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assemblage, and freedom to communicate information and opinions to others. The ordinance is also challenged as violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on the ground that it is go obscure, vague, and indefinite as to be impossible of reasonably accurate interpretation. No question was raised as to the sufficiency of the complaint.

At the trial in the Trenton police court, a city patrolman testified that, while on his post, he heard a sound truck broadcasting music. Upon going in the direction of said sound, he located the truck on a public street near the municipal building. As he approached the truck, the music stopped and he heard a man's voice broadcasting from the truck. The appellant admitted that he operated the mechanism for the music and spoke into the amplifier. The record from the police court does not show the purpose of the broadcasting, but the opinion in the Supreme Court suggests that the appellant was using the sound apparatus to comment on a labor dispute then in progress in Trenton.

The contention that the section is so vague, obscure and indefinite as to be unenforceable merits only a passing reference. This objection centers around the use of the words "loud and raucous." While these are abstract words, they have [69 S.Ct. 450] through daily use acquired a content that conveys to any interested person a sufficiently accurate concept of what is forbidden. Last term, after thorough consideration of the problem of vagueness in legislation affecting liberty of speech, this Court invalidated a conviction under a New York statute construed and applied to punish the distribution of magazines

principally made up of criminal news or stories of deeds of bloodshed or lust so massed as to become vehicles for inciting violent and depraved crimes against the person.

Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, 518. As thus construed,

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we said that the statute was so vague that an honest distributor of tales of war horrors could not know whether he was violating the statute. P. 520. But in the Winters case, we pointed out that prosecutions might be brought under statutes punishing the distribution of "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting" magazines. P. 511. We said, p. 518:

The impossibility of defining the precise line between permissible uncertainty in statutes caused by describing crimes by words well understood through long use in the criminal law -- obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent or disgusting -- and the unconstitutional vagueness that leaves a person uncertain as to the kind of prohibited conduct -- massing stories to incite crime -- has resulted in three arguments of this case in this Court.

We used the words quoted above from page 511 as examples of permissible standards of statutes for criminal prosecution. P. 520. There, we said:

To say that a state may not punish by such a vague statute carries no implication that it may not punish circulation of objectionable printed matter, assuming that it is not protected by the principles of the First Amendment, by the use of apt words to describe the prohibited publications. . . . Neither the states nor Congress are prevented by the requirement of specificity from carrying out their duty of eliminating evils to which, in their judgment, such publications give rise.

We think the words of § 4 of this Trenton ordinance comply with the requirements of definiteness and clarity, set out above.

The scope of the protection afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment, for the right of a citizen to play music and express his views on matters which he considers to be

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of interest to himself and others on a public street through sound amplification devices mounted on vehicles, must be considered. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to communicate information and opinion to others are all comprehended on this appeal in the claimed right of free speech. They will be so treated in this opinion.

The use of sound trucks and other peripatetic or stationary broadcasting devices for advertising, for religious exercises, and for discussion of issues or controversies has brought forth numerous municipal ordinances. The avowed and obvious purpose of these ordinances is to prohibit or minimize such sounds on or near the streets, since some citizens find the noise objectionable and to some degree an interference with the business or social activities in which they are engaged or the quiet that they would like to enjoy.2 A satisfactory adjustment of the conflicting interests is difficult, as those who desire to broadcast can hardly acquiesce in a requirement to modulate their sounds to a pitch that would [69 S.Ct. 451] not rise above other street noises, nor would they deem a restriction to sparsely used localities or to hours after work and before sleep -- say 6 to 9 p.m. -- sufficient for the exercise of their claimed privilege. Municipalities are seeking actively a solution. National Institute of Municipal Law Officers, Report No. 123, 1948. Unrestrained use throughout a municipality of all sound amplifying devices would be intolerable. Absolute prohibition within

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municipal limits of all sound amplification, even though reasonably regulated in place, time and volume, is undesirable and probably unconstitutional as an unreasonable interference with normal activities.

We have had recently before us an ordinance of the City of Lockport, New York, prohibiting sound amplification whereby the sound was cast on public places so as to attract the attention of the passing public to the annoyance of those within the radius of the sounds. The ordinance contained this exception:

Section 3. Exception. Public dissemination, through radio loudspeakers, of items of news and matters of public concern and athletic activities shall not be deemed a violation of this section provided that the same be done under permission obtained from the Chief of Police.

This Court held the ordinance "unconstitutional on its face," Saia v. New York, 334 U.S. 558, because the quoted section established a "previous restraint" on free speech with "no standards prescribed for the exercise" of discretion by the Chief of Police. When ordinances undertake censorship of speech or religious practices before permitting their exercise, the Constitution forbids their enforcement.3 The Court said in the Saia case at 560-561:

The right to be heard is placed in the uncontrolled discretion of the Chief of Police. He stands athwart the channels of communication as an obstruction which can be removed only after criminal trial and conviction and lengthy appeal. A more effective previous restraint is difficult to imagine.

This ordinance is not of that character. It contains nothing comparable to the above-quoted § 3 of the ordinance

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in the Saia case. It is an exercise of the authority granted to the city by New Jersey "to prevent disturbing noises," N.J.Stat.Ann., tit. 40, § 48-1(8), nuisances well within the municipality's power to control. The police power of a state extends beyond health, morals and safety, and comprehends the duty, within constitutional limitations, to protect the wellbeing and tranquility of a community.4 A...

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