Smith v. Goguen

415 U.S. 566, 94 S. Ct. 1242 (1974)



The due process doctrine of vagueness incorporates notions of fair notice or warning. Moreover, it requires legislatures to set reasonably clear guidelines for law enforcement officials and triers of fact in order to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Where a statute's literal scope, unaided by a narrowing state court interpretation, is capable of reaching expression sheltered by U.S. Const. amend. I, the doctrine demands a greater degree of specificity than in other contexts.


Appellee, Goguen, wore a small cloth version of the United States flag sewn to the seat of his trousers. On January 30, 1970, two police officers in Leominster, Massachusetts, saw Goguen bedecked in that fashion. The first officer encountered Goguen standing and talking with a group of persons on a public street. Apparently, the group was not engaged in any demonstration or other protest associated with Goguen's apparel.  No disruption of traffic or breach of the peace occurred. When the officer approached  Goguen to question him about the flag, the other persons present laughed. Sometime later, the second officer observed Goguen in the same attire walking in the downtown business district of Leominster. Subsequently, the first officer swore out a complaint against Goguen under the contempt provision of the Massachusetts flag-misuse statute. He was found to be guilty; his conviction has been affirmed by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, it was held that the contempt provision of the Massachusetts flag-misuse statute was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The officer thereafter sought review of the appellate court’s judgment.


Was the contempt provision of the Massachusetts flag-misuse statute unconstitutionally vague?


Yes, as regards vagueness.


The Court held that a certain portion of the statute (i.e. "treats contemptuously") was void for vagueness under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the statutory provision did not adequately give notice of what acts were criminal and did not set reasonable standards to guide law enforcement officers and juries. The Court did not decide on the issue of the statute being overbroad.

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