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Coates v. Cincinnati

    Brief Fact Summary. Appellant Coates was involved with several other individuals in a demonstration and picketing in a labor dispute. They were later convicted for violating a Cincinnati city ordinance prohibiting assembly on public sidewalks if the assembly annoyed other individuals. Appellant claims that such a statute violates his right to free assembly.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. An ordinance or statute that restricts First or Fourteenth Amendment rights is unconstitutional if it is overly vague and restricts protected speech and assembly in addition to unprotected actions.

    Facts. Appellant was a student involved in a demonstration and the other Appellants were pickets involved in a labor dispute. They were later convicted of violating a Cincinnati, Ohio, ordinance that makes it a criminal offense for three or more people to assemble on any of the sidewalks of the city and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to passers by. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Appellants’ convictions.

    Issue. Whether the Cincinnati, Ohio ordinance making it a criminal offense for three or more people to assemble on a public sidewalk and conduct themselves in a manner annoying to passing individuals is a violation of Appellant’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights?

    Held. Yes. The ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because it subjects the exercise of the right of assembly to an unascertainable standard, and unconstitutionally broad because it authorize the punishment of constitutionally protected conduct. In fact conduct that annoys some people, does not annoy others. Therefore it causes guessing as to what the meaning of the standard of conduct is. Although the city argues that the breadth of this statue allows the prevention of lawless conduct on the sidewalks, it could do so with an ordinance that gives reasonable specificity as to what is prohibited. As this ordinance punishes not only lawless, unprotected conduct, and lawful protected assembly, this ordinance is an unconstitutional restriction of the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to assemble.

    Dissent. Any man of average intelligence should know that some kinds of conduct are annoying and covered by the ordinance, while others are not and not covered by the ordinance. Would prefer to deal with the ordinance as with any criminal statute. The statute is not infirm on its face, and since no information was given as to what conduct was charged against the Appellants, the Court is in no position to judge the statute as applied. The fact that the ordinance confers wide discretion in a wide range of circumstances is irrelevant when dealing with conduct at its core.

    Discussion. The majority in this case clearly states that it will not uphold regulations that vaguely limit an individual’s right to peaceful speech and assembly, even if that regulation also protects the public against violent actions. A regulation must clearly outline what conduct is allowed, and what conduct is prohibited if it involves restricting an individual’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The dissent prefers leaving the decision of what conduct is allowed, and what is prohibited to a jury, while the majority believes that it is every citizens right to clearly know what conduct is allowed and what is prohibited before they act, and not leave it up to a jury that could reach a different conclusion depending on the members of the panel.


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