523 F.2d 3 (4th Cir. 1975), 73-1108, Walker v. Dillard

Docket Nº:73-1108.
Citation:523 F.2d 3
Party Name:Mary WALKER, Appellant, v. The Hon. George B. DILLARD, Judge, Municipal Court of Roanoke, Appellee.
Case Date:July 10, 1975
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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523 F.2d 3 (4th Cir. 1975)

Mary WALKER, Appellant,

v.

The Hon. George B. DILLARD, Judge, Municipal Court of

Roanoke, Appellee.

No. 73-1108.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 10, 1975

Argued Dec. 5, 1974.

David G. Karro, Roanoke, Va. (Court-appointed counsel) (Henry L. Woodward, Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley, Roanoke, Va., on brief), for appellant.

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Robert E. Shepherd, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen. of Va. (Andrew P. Miller, Atty. Gen. of Va., on brief), for appellee.

Before HAYNSWORTH, Chief Judge, BUTZNER, Circuit Judge, and THOMSEN, District Judge.

HAYNSWORTH, Chief Judge.

This case arises out of a telephone argument between the appellant, Mary Walker, and one of her neighbors over the behavior of Mrs. Walker's children. After the conversation Mrs. Walker was convicted in the Municipal Court for the City of Roanoke, Va., of violating Virginia Code § 18.1-238. 1 Mrs. Walker subsequently sought habeas relief in the district court 2 claiming that the statute is void for vagueness and overbreadth and that her right to a jury trial was violated by the inability of the Municipal Court to afford a trial by jury. 3 The district court dismissed the petition, 4 363 F.Supp. 921, and this appeal ensued. We conclude that Mrs. Walker could not constitutionally be convicted under Section 18.1-238 because the statute is facially overbroad. Accordingly, we reverse the decision below and order that a writ of habeas corpus issue.

We start from the proposition that the state has a legitimate interest in prohibiting obscene, threatening, and harassing phone calls, none of which are generally thought of as protected by the First Amendment. Cf. Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 93 S.Ct. 2607, 37 L.Ed.2d 419 (1973); Rowan v. Post Office Dept., 397 U.S. 728, 90 S.Ct. 1484, 25 L.Ed.2d 736 (1970); Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705, 89 S.Ct. 1399, 22 L.Ed.2d 664 (1969). Nevertheless, while such activity may permissibly be punished, the proscription must not be one that unduly impinges on protected expression. E. g. Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518, 522, 92 S.Ct. 1103, 31 L.Ed.2d 408 (1972).

One in the position of Mrs. Walker may raise the overbreadth issue even though the language she used might have been constitutionally prohibited under a narrowly and precisely drawn statute.

At least when statutes regulate or proscribe speech and when "no readily apparent construction suggests itself as a vehicle for rehabilitating the statutes in a single prosecution," * * * the transcendent value to all society of constitutionally protected expression is deemed to justify allowing "attacks on overly broad statutes with no requirement that the person making the attack demonstrate that his own conduct could not be regulated by a statute drawn with the requisite narrow specificity" * * *. This is deemed necessary because persons whose expression is constitutionally protected may well refrain from exercising their rights for fear of criminal sanctions provided by a statute susceptible of application to protected expression.

Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130, 133-34, 94 S.Ct. 970, 39 L.Ed.2d 214 (1974). See also Coates v. City of Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611, 91 S.Ct. 1686, 29 L.Ed.2d 214 (1971).

That the statute challenged here presents such a case is apparent. The

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Supreme Court of Virginia has thus far declined to place a narrowing construction on the sweeping language of Section 18.1-238, which regulates only speech. 5 On its face the statute prohibits abusive comment about third parties, curses or abuses directed at unsolicited callers, and "vulgar" or "profane" discussion of virtually everything and everyone. The statute does not reach the anonymous midnight caller who only breathes into the mouthpiece, unless repeated calls might be said to be abusive, but it makes punishable an indiscreet response from the outraged recipient of that call. An intemperate expression of understandable and wholesome indignation would be within the statute's apparent reach, but the words of many an anonymous, harassing caller would not.

Nearly every operative word of the statute is susceptible of an overbroad construction, and several have been stricken at one time or another for indefiniteness. 6 Thus, in Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705, 89 S.Ct. 1399, 22 L.Ed.2d 664 (1969), the Supreme Court acknowledged that the word "threat" must be narrowly defined in order to avoid punishing constitutionally protected speech. The Court construed 18 U.S.C. § 871(a) so as to exclude Watts' statement, which it characterized as crude and offensive political hyperbole, because Congress could not have intended to inhibit robust debate which, in the political arena, is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact. It is significant that the Virginia statute on its face authorizes punishment of Watts' statement, which was "abusive" if not "threatening." And, in Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518, 92 S.Ct. 1103, 31 L.Ed.2d 408 (1972) the Court held facially unconstitutional a Georgia statute proscribing "opprobrious words or abusive language" because the statute had not been narrowed by the state courts to apply only to "fighting words." 7

The words "vulgar," "profane," and "indecent" are also capable of overbroad interpretation. The message on Paul Robert Cohen's jacket in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 91 S.Ct. 1780, 29 L.Ed.2d 284 (1971), was...

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