Where statutes have an overbroad sweep, just as where they are vague, the hazard of loss or substantial impairment of those precious rights may be critical, because those covered by the statute are bound to limit their behavior to that which is unquestionably safe. The breadth of legislative abridgment must be viewed in the light of less drastic means for achieving the same basic purpose.
Faculty members of the State University of New York sued in the United States District Court of New York for declaratory and injunctive relief against a New York plan, formulated partly in statutes and partly in administrative regulations, which the state used to prevent the appointment or retention of subversives in state employment. A three-judge Federal District Court held that the program was constitutional.
Was the New York plan used by the state to prevent the appointment or retention of subversives in state employment constitutional?
The Supreme Court reversed the district court’s decision, concluding that the regulatory maze created by the laws was wholly lacking in terms susceptible of objective measurement. Moreover, it was so ambiguous that men of common intelligence had to necessarily guess at its meaning and differed as to its application. The Court held that the statutory scheme at issue was void for vagueness and overly broad in violation of the First Amendment. Specifically, the laws were held to be invalid insofar as they proscribed mere knowing membership without any showing of specific intent to further the unlawful aims of the Communist Party.