Brief Fact Summary. During an anti-war demonstration the Appellee, Wilson (Appellee), was convicted under a Georgia criminal statute for saying to police officers, inter alia, “You son of a bitch, I’ll choke you to death”. The constitutionality of the statute under which the Appellee was convicted was brought into question.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A statute prohibiting the utterance of certain words must be carefully drawn or be authoritatively construed to punish only unprotected speech and not be susceptible of application to protected expression.
Issue. Was the Statute prohibiting “opprobrious” or “abusive” language tending to cause as breach of the peace unconstitutional on its face?
Held. Yes. The lower court is affirmed.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) forbids the punishment of the use of words unless such words fall within some narrowly defined class of socially low value speech. But, even when the State endeavors to punish the utterance of such speech, it must do so precisely so as not to create a law that could be reasonably interpreted as applying to constitutionally protected speech. This is because First Amendment constitutional freedoms need “breathing space”.
In the instant case, the Georgia Courts have not construed the Statute to apply to a narrow class of speech such as “fighting words”. Indeed, the dictionary definition of the words “opprobrious” and “abusive”, as used in the Statute, give the words a much wider reach than what could be interpreted as “fighting words”. Therefore, the Statute is too broad and invalid.
Chief Justice Warren Burger (J. Burger) stated it is remarkable that the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) could find laws unconstitutional because of the way State courts have applied the laws in a few isolated cases. Moreover, if the overbreadth doctrine serves any legitimate purpose, it is to allow courts to invalidate statutes that demonstrate that they sweep too broadly, prohibiting constitutionally protected speech. The doctrine was not intended, however, to extend to laws that may, in some imagined unlikely context, apply to speech that the laws were not designed to prohibit.
Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun) Given the Supreme Court’s decision here, the State’s only option if it wishes to prohibit the language the Supreme Court says it may, is to enact a statute reading exactly as the one at issue read, but adding language that the words in the statute mean only what the Supreme Court says they may mean and nothing more.
Discussion. This case shows how the overbreadth doctrine is applied by the courts. In applying the doctrine, a court will consider the potential applications (or “reach”) of a law to a set of facts. If the law would apply to or forbid not only language the government could constitutionally forbid, but also language the government cannot forbid, then the law is overbroad and therefore unconstitutional.