Coates v. City of Cincinnati

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Coates v. Cincinnati
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 11, 1971
Decided June 1, 1971
Full case nameCoates, et al. v. City of Cincinnati
Citations402 U.S. 611 (more)
91 S. Ct. 1686; 29 L. Ed. 2d 214; 1971 U.S. LEXIS 38; 58 Ohio Op. 2d 481
Case history
Prior21 Ohio St.2d 66, 255 N.E.2d 247 (Ohio Supreme Court)
A Cincinnati ordinance which made it a criminal offense for three or more persons to assemble on a sidewalk and annoy passersby violated the rights of free assembly and association. Additionally, the vagueness of the law violated due process.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · William O. Douglas
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan Jr.
Potter Stewart · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Case opinions
MajorityStewart, joined by Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Marshall
DissentWhite, joined by Burger, Blackmun
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. I; Section 901-L6, Code of Ordinances of the City of Cincinnati

Coates v. Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611 (1971),[1] is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that a local city ordinance that made it a criminal offense for three or more persons to assemble on a sidewalk and “annoy” any passersby was unconstitutionally vague.


In 1956 Cincinnati, Ohio passed an ordinance which provided that:

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. Whoever violates any of the provisions of this section shall be fined not exceeding fifty dollars ($50.00), or be imprisoned not less than one (1) nor more than thirty (30) days or both.[2]

Coates, a student, participated in a demonstration and was convicted of violating the ordinance. Coates appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, alleging that the ordinance and his conviction violated the First and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution. Coates argued that the ordinance interfered with the first amendment protection of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and that the ordinance as written was so vague that it violated the due process guarantees of the fourteenth amendment.[3] Relying on Cameron v. Johnson, a divided court found that "annoying" was not unconstitutionally vague and affirmed Coates' conviction.[4]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

By a 5–3 vote, the Supreme Court struck down the Cincinnati ordinance, finding that it "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."[5] Justice Stewart, writing for the majority, explained that as the ordinance specified no standard of conduct at all (annoying conduct being different things to different people), "men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning." Given its breadth, the ordinance would give the city the power to punish conduct which would otherwise be constitutionally protected.[5] Additionally, the ordinance violated the constitutionally protected right of free assembly, a core guarantee which could not be abridged merely because someone might be "annoyed."[5]

Black's opinion[edit]

Justice Black wrote a separate opinion, neither concurring nor dissenting.[6] While agreeing with the majority that the court had jurisdiction to hear the case and that a vague law could constitute a due process violation, Black did not find that the ordinance was facially unconstitutional. Black argued that the ordinance could have both constitutional and unconstitutional applications, and that the factual record from the trial was insufficient to determine which had occurred. Black would have vacated and remanded the case.[7]


Justice White dissented, agreeing with Black that the ordinance was not facially unconstitutional. White noted that "as a general rule, when a criminal charge is based on conduct constitutionally subject to proscription and clearly forbidden by a statute, it is no defense that the law would be unconstitutionally vague if applied to other behavior." It was not clear what conduct Coates had engaged in, and it might have been conduct within the power of the city to punish.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Coates v. City of Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611 (1971).  This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Coates, 402 U.S. at 612, FN 1.
  3. ^ Coates, 402 U.S. at 612.
  4. ^ Coates, 402 U.S. at 613.
  5. ^ a b c Coates, 402 U.S. at 614.
  6. ^ "Power To Disperse 'Annoying' Groups Limited By Court". Daytona Beach Morning Journal. June 2, 1971. Retrieved 2010-05-01.
  7. ^ Coates, 402 U.S. at 616-617 (Black, J.).
  8. ^ Coates, 402 U.S. at 620 (White, J., dissenting).

External links[edit]