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Law School Case Brief

Coates v. Cincinnati - 402 U.S. 611, 91 S. Ct. 1686 (1971)

Rule:

An ordinance or statute is unconstitutionally vague when men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning. 

Facts:

Appellants, a student and four labor picketers, were convicted for violating Cincinnati, Ohio, Code of Ordinances § 901-L6, which made it a criminal offense for three or more persons to assemble on any of the city's sidewalks and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by. The convictions were affirmed by the state supreme court. On appeal,the court reversed the judgment. The city ordinance was unconstitutional on its face because it was vague, and thus violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and also violated appellants, a student and four labor picketers', First Amendment rights to free assembly and freedom of association.



Issue:

Was the contested ordinance unconstitutional for violating the void for vagueness doctrine?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C.S. § 1257(2), the court agreed with appellants' claim that § 901-L6 was unconstitutional on its face as violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the freedoms of assembly and association guaranteed by the First Amendment. Specifically, the court ruled the ordinance violated due process on the ground that it was vague in that it did not specify a standard of conduct. The court observed that conduct that annoyed some people did not annoy others, and thus men of common intelligence were required to guess at the meaning of § 901-L6. The court also ruled that the ordinance violated appellants' constitutional rights of free assembly and association. The court reasoned that mere public intolerance or animosity could not be the basis for abridgment of those constitutional freedoms.

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