Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Coates v. City of Cincinnati

Case Review of Coates v. City of Cincinnati

A case on the laws of Assembly, and the Rights of People

Case Name:
Coates v. 
City of Cincinnati
Court Title:
Supreme Court of the US

Appealed from the 
Supreme Court of Ohio
Decided on:
June 1st, 1971

For full transcript please find 
the link at the base of this post.


The Ohio Supreme Court is to decide the constitutionality of the following ordinance by the City of Cincinnati, OH. 

"It shall be unlawful for three or more persons to assemble, except at a public meeting of citizens, on any of the sidewalks, street corners, vacant lots or mouths of alleys, and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by, or occupants of adjacent buildings....
Section 901-L6, Code of Ordinances of the City of Cincinnati (1956).

The appellants were convicted of violating the ordinance. The position of the appellants was that the ordinance "on it's face" violated the 1st and 14th amendments of the Constitution.

This claim was first dejected by the Supreme Court of Ohio, the court wrote:
"The ordinance prohibits, inter alia, `conduct . . . annoying to persons passing by.' The word `annoying' is a widely used and well understood word; it is not necessary to guess its meaning. `Annoying' is the present participle of the transitive verb `annoy' which means to trouble, to vex, to impede, to incommode, to provoke, to harass or to irritate.
"We conclude, as did the Supreme Court of the United States in Cameron v. Johnson, 390 U. S. 611, 616, in which the issue of the vagueness of a statute was presented, that the ordinance `clearly and precisely delineates its reach in words of common understanding. It is a "precise and narrowly drawn regulatory statute [ordinance] evincing a legislative judgment that certain specific conduct be . . . proscribed." ' " 21 Ohio St. 2d, at 69, 255 N. E. 2d, at 249.

Appeal and Superior Court Decision-

The decision was then appealed the the US Supreme Court, who saw probable jurisdiction under, 28 U. S. C. § 1257Mr. Justice Stewart introduced the opinion of the court. The US Supreme Court stated that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague as it holds the right to assembly to an unattainable standard stating:

'In our opinion this ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because it subjects the exercise of the right of assembly to an unascertainable standard, and unconstitutionally broad because it authorizes the punishment of constitutionally protected conduct.'
And continues to refer to  Connally v. General Construction Co. quoting "men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning."

However, the court does go on to state that the ordinance does broadly prohibit actions that are within it's constitutional power.  And refers to the Supreme Court of Ohio's decision  stating:

'... The city is free to prevent people from blocking sidewalks, obstructing traffic, littering streets, committing assaults, or engaging in countless other forms of antisocial conduct.'

and goes on to say that the ordinances of the city needed to be made with "reasonable specificity toward the conduct to be prohibited," and cannot constitutionally do so with an ordinance whose violation "may entirely depend upon whether or not a policeman is annoyed."

The case goes on in further detail stating as to why the ordinance was unconstitutional and refers to several more cases, and ends stating;
The ordinance before us makes a crime out of what under the Constitution cannot be a crime. It is aimed directly at activity protected by the Constitution. We need not lament that we do not have before us the details of the conduct found to be annoying. It is the ordinance on its face that sets the standard of conduct and warns against transgression. The details of the offense could no more serve to validate this ordinance than could the details of an offense charged under an ordinance suspending unconditionally the right of assembly and free speech. The judgement is reversed. 

Mr. Justice Black agreed and reaffirmed the judgement with his own twist, stating that the actions of the appellant may have been criminal, but the record failed to describe what actions they had made.  

Mr. Justice White in concert with The Chief Justice, and Mr. Justice Blackmun wrote a dissenting opinion and affirmed the judgement of the Supreme Court of Ohio. They state that the ordinance was prohibiting crimes within the cities jurisdiction, but the language of the law itself was vague, but this does not mean that the appellant was not guilty of a crime. Once again non of the justices were supplied with the actions of the appellants and could, therefore not reach a conclusion as to if their individual actions were criminal, or if the city acted unconstitutionally. 

This is an edited brief on 
for a full transcript,
 click the link. 

I reviewed this case in a course of research, for discovery of the defining bounds of an assembly and when an assembly becomes a 'protest', as well as the differences between the two, please stay tuned as I dive into this issue and bring forth information to assist in the proper and reasonable forms of assembly in which we are lawfully allotted to take, instead of protests which often end in the arrest of otherwise law abiding people engaged in an action which often has an unclear focus of a pursuable objective. 

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