Coates v. Cincinnati Case Brief

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

Facts: Appellant, Coates, as student involved in a demonstration with others, all who were picketing a labor dispute.

Issue(s): Whether the ordinance is facially unconstitutional as being void for vagueness under 1st and 14th Amends?

Holding: Yes, it is UnConst’ly vague b/c it subjects the exercise of the right of assembly to an unascertainable standard, and it is UnConst’ly broad b/c it authorizes the punishment of Const’ly protected conduct.

Procedure: Cincinnati ordinance criminalized assembly of three or more on any sidewalk in manner that annoyed others passing by. Coates was convicted. OH S Ct Affirmed. USSCt Reversed.

Rule(s): 1st and 14th Amend

Rationale: Conduct that annoys some people does not annoy others. Thus this ordinance is vague in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all. As a result ordinary people would be required to guess at its meaning.

The City is free to prevent people from blocking sidewalks, etc. by enacting legislation directed with Rble specificity toward the conduct prohibited. It cannot Const’ly enact or enforce an ordinance where a determination of violation rests entirely upon whether an official is annoyed or not.

The problem with this law is not just that it violates the DP standards of vagueness, it also violates the Const’l protection for speech and assembly. Mere public intolerance or animosity are not the basis for restriction of these rights. The 1st and 14th Amend do not allow a state to criminalize the exercise of either merely b/c that exercise may be annoying to some. This ordinance is aimed directly at protected Const’l freedoms and make a crime out of activities which cannot be a crime under the Const.

DISSENT: Any person of average intelligence knows or should know what conduct is annoying to others to fall w/i the prohibitions of this ordinance. A criminal charge based on conduct cannot be void for vagueness merely b/c it could apply to other forms of conduct.

Cincinnati does not claim to prohibit or regulate speech as speech, but rather it prohibits people from assembling and conducting themselves in a manner that is annoying to others. This is a valid regulation of conduct and not pure speech.

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