Overbreadth Doctrine

Overbreadth Doctrine in the United States

Requires that enactments proscribing certain activity must completely avoid affecting conduct that is constitutionally protected. Overbreadth typically refers to a statute that may fail to adequately distinguish between activities that may be regulated and those that may not. The overbreadth doctrine prohibits a law that does not sufficiently focus on or target those things a state may legitimately regulate. Instead, it indiscriminately includes forms of expression or activities that are permissible. A recent example involving the overbreadth doctrine is the Los Angeles ordinance that prohibited all expressive activities within the central terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Board of Airport Commissioners v. Jews for Jesus (482 U.S. 589: 1987) that the ordinance was defective in that it went beyond just regulating expressive activity that might create problems, such as congestion or disruption in the airport. Such a regulation might be a permissible time, place, and manner restriction, but instead the ordinance here banned all expression. Under such a sweeping ban, virtually everyone entering the terminal could be found in violation. Even the intent to reach only expressive activity unrelated to airport purposes was viewed as vague in distinguishing affected from unaffected activity. Thus the Court struck down the ordinance on overbreadth grounds.

See Also

Doctrine (Judicial Effects and Policies) Judicial Review (Judicial Effects and Policies).

Analysis and Relevance

The overbreadth doctrine is illustrated in Village of Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment (444 U.S. 620: 1980), where the Supreme Court struck down a local ordinance that required all organizations soliciting contributions door-to-door to use at least 75 percent of their receipts for charitable purposes. The intent of the ordinance was to prevent fraudulent solicitations. The Court objected to the approach because it imposed a direct and substantial limitation on organizations such as environmental education groups whose principal activities are research, advocacy, and public education. While such organizations obviously do not meet the ordinance definition of charitable, their activities are constitutionally permissible. Schaumburg’s ordinance was simply too inclusive or overbroad. A similar ordinance was invalidated in Coates v. Cincinnati (402 U.S. 611: 1972) because the ordinance prohibited an assembly of three or more people on public sidewalks. It subjected such assembled people to arrest if their behavior “annoyed” a police officer or passerby. The ordinance made criminal what the Constitution says cannot be a crime. Neither may an enactment suffer from vagueness. Regulation must convey standards of conduct that people of reasonable intelligence can understand. Enactments that do not clearly convey required or prohibited conduct may be invalidated as vague. Restrictions that are either overbroad or vague may have a “chilling effect” on expression or some other protected activity. A chilling effect comes when persons think sanctions will be imposed if they exercise their rights. As a result, people tend to restrict themselves from engaging in activities that fall outside those clearly protected.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Overbreadth Doctrine from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California






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