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Grayned v. City of Rockford

Broad Laws And Specific Restrictions

When Grayned's case finally made it to the Supreme Court, the Court had just recently ruled on another anti-picketing ordinance in the city of Chicago, very similar to the one in Rockford. The Court had invalidated the Chicago ordinance, and so they invalidated the Rockford one as well. That left only the antinoise ordinance.

The Court had to answer the two questions of whether the ordinance too was vague, and was it too broad. Those were the charges brought by Grayned. Clearly, a vague law is not a fair law, because its vagueness makes it too easy for police and juries to apply the law only against the people they don't like, rather than treating everyone equally. Likewise, a broad law, while outlawing some bad things, might at the same time outlaw some activities that are actually protected by the Constitution. To be fair, laws have to be precise and specific.

Justice Marshall, who wrote the decision for the Court, spent a great deal of time emphasizing that people have a right to protest, to express themselves freely, and to engage in protests that take place at or near a school, even while the school is in session. The right to free speech is protected by the First Amendment, and Marshall wanted to be sure that the Rockford law did not contradict the First Amendment in any way.

However, Marshall also pointed out that honoring the First Amendment does not mean that there are no restrictions on how ideas are expressed. He gave the example of people who want to hold two parades at once, on the same street. Clearly, a city has the right to give a permit to only one group, to prevent the disruption that having two parades would cause. Likewise, if people want to hold the parade on a busy street during rush hour, a city could forbid the parade on the grounds that it would cause too many traffic problems.

In other words, Marshall said, cities and other branches of government had the right to place "reasonable `time, place and manner' regulations" to protect certain governmental interests. However, these regulations had to be so clear that no one could interpret them differently for different groups--they had to apply in the same way to everybody.

In addition, the regulations had to be so specific that they only prohibited the part of free expression that would actually interfere with those governmental interests. For example, a law might forbid someone from making a political speech in a library reading room, but the law should allow a silent protest in a library reading room, while allowing the noisier speech in a public park.

By those standards, Marshall said, the city of Rockford's ordinance was neither too vague nor too broad. The Court recognized that communities have a right to protect their schools. If noise or disturbances will disrupt the school day or incite students to leave the classroom, then certainly, the Court felt, a community has a right to take action. The city of Rockford's antinoise ordinance was precisely limited to just that type of noise that might disrupt the school day. Therefore, the Court upheld it--and Grayned's conviction under it.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Grayned v. City of Rockford - Significance, Who Made The Noise?, Broad Laws And Specific Restrictions, The Lone Dissenter, Related Cases