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City of Houston, Texas v. Hill

Citation. 482 U.S. 451, 107 S.Ct. 2502, 96 L.Ed.2d 398 (1987).

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff brought suit to invalidate a Houston ordinance that prohibited willful and intentional interruption of a police officer by verbal challenge during an investigation on First Amendment grounds.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A law is unconstitutional if it criminalizes a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech and gives the police unconstitutional discretion in enforcement.


Plaintiff observed his friend intentionally stopping traffic on a busy street to enable another vehicle to enter traffic. Two Houston police officers approached the friend and Plaintiff began shouting at the officers in an attempt to divert their attention. Plaintiff was arrested under a Houston ordinance which prohibited the willful and intentional interruption of a police officer by verbal challenge during an investigation. After being acquitted, Plaintiff brought suit, seeking a declaratory judgement that the ordinance was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.


Whether the Houston ordinance is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.


Yes.The Houston ordinance is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.


Justice Powell

The Court should not have received the merits of the constitutional claim, but instead should have certified a question to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. At the same time, I do agree that the ordinance is indeed ambiguous. It should be possible, however, for the present ordinance to be reframed in a way that would limit the broad discretion of the officers. This would also protect the city’s legitimate interests.


Justice Blackmun

I do not agree with the Court’s reasoning here, which uses precedent with no real support to the merits of the case before us.


Contrary to Defendant’s contention, the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment under our precedent unless shown likely to produce a clear and present anger of serious substantial evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.

Here, the ordinance is not limited to fighting words, nor even too obscene or opprobrious language. The Constitution does not allow such speech to be made a crime. The freedom of individuals to verbally oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state. Judgement affirmed.

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