Vague laws offend several important values. First, because man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application. Third, but related, where a vague statute abuts upon sensitive areas of basic U.S. Const. amend. I freedoms, it operates to inhibit the exercise of those freedoms. Uncertain meanings inevitably lead citizens to steer far wider of the unlawful zone than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked.
Appellant demonstrator was convicted of violating an antipicketing and an antinoise ordinance while demonstrating in front of a school. Appellant challenged the constitutionality of each ordinance by appealing directly to the state supreme court, which held that both ordinances were constitutional on their face. On appeal on a writ of certiorari, the Court reversed the court below with respect to the antipicketing ordinance because it was unconstitutional, but affirmed the court below with respect to the antinoise ordinance. The Court held that the antinoise ordinance was not impermissibly vague because it was written specifically for the school context, where the prohibited disturbances were easily measured by their impact on the school.
Is the antinoise statute constitutional?
The court concluded that the antinoise ordinance is not impermissibly vague. The court below rejected appellant's arguments "that proscribed conduct was not sufficiently specified and that police were given too broad a discretion in determining whether conduct was proscribed." Although it referred to other, similar statutes it had recently construed and upheld, the court below did not elaborate on the meaning of the antinoise ordinance. In this situation, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter put it, we must "extrapolate its allowable meaning." Here, we are "relegated . . . to the words of the ordinance itself," to the interpretations the court below has given to analogous statutes, and, perhaps to some degree, to the interpretation of the statute given by those charged with enforcing it. Extrapolation," of course, is a delicate task, for it is not within our power to construe and narrow state laws.