402 U.S. 611 (1971), 117, Coates v. City of Cincinnati

Docket Nº:No. 117
Citation:402 U.S. 611, 91 S.Ct. 1686, 29 L.Ed.2d 214
Party Name:Coates v. City of Cincinnati
Case Date:June 01, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 611

402 U.S. 611 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1686, 29 L.Ed.2d 214



City of Cincinnati

No. 117

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 1971

Argued January 11, 1971



Cincinnati, Ohio, ordinance making it a criminal offense for

three or more persons to assemble . . . on any of the sidewalls . . . and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by . . . ,

which has not been narrowed by any construction of the Ohio Supreme Court, held violative on its face of the due process standard of vagueness and the constitutional right of free assembly and association. Pp. 614-616.

21 Ohio St.2d 66, 255 N.E.2d 247, reversed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, HARLAN, BRENNAN, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. BLACK, J., filed a separate opinion, post, p. 616. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 617.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

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. . . .1

Page 612

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. 21 Ohio St.2d 66, 255 N.E.2d 247. An appeal from that judgment was brought here under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2),2 and we noted probable jurisdiction, 398 U.S. 902. 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. Cf. Times Film Corp. v. Chicago, 365 U.S. 43.

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.

Page 613

We conclude, as did the Supreme Court of the United States in Cameron v. Johnson, 390 U.S. 611, 616, in which the issue of the vagueness of a statute was presented, 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."

21 Ohio St.2d at 69, 255 N.E.2d at 249.

[91 S.Ct. 1688] 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." Ibid. 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.3

Page 614

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." Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391.

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. Gregory v. Chicago, 394 U.S. 111, 118, 124-125 (BLACK, J., concurring). 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.4

Page 615

[91 S.Ct. 1689] 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 abridgment of these constitutional freedoms. See Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576, 592; Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 551-553; Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 238; Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1; Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 311; Schneider v. State, 308 U.S. 147, 161. 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..5

Page 616

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.6

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.

BLACK, J., statement


First. I agree with the majority that this case is properly before us on appeal from the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Second. This Court has long held that laws so vague that a person of common understanding cannot know what is forbidden are unconstitutional on their face. Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451 (1939), United States v. Cohen Grocery Co., 255 U.S. 81 (1921). Likewise, laws which broadly forbid conduct or activities which are protected by the Federal Constitution, such as, for instance, the discussion of political matters, are void on their face. Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88

Page 617

(1940). On the other hand, laws which plainly forbid conduct which is constitutionally within the power of the State to forbid [91 S.Ct. 1690] but also restrict constitutionally protected conduct may be void either on their face or merely as applied in certain instances. As my Brother WHITE states in his opinion (with which I substantially agree), this is one of those numerous cases where the law could be held unconstitutional because it prohibits both conduct which the Constitution safeguards and conduct which the State may constitutionally punish. Thus, the First Amendment, which forbids the State to abridge freedom of speech, would invalidate this city ordinance if it were used to punish the making of a political speech, even if that speech were to annoy other persons. In contrast, however, the ordinance could properly be applied to prohibit the gathering of persons in the mouths of alleys to annoy passersby by throwing...

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