Actually, in true US fashion, the headline for that article is completely misleading.
Fortunately, the court decision (available in PDF and worth reading) is even more significant than the headline would have it seem.
First, here's what actually happened:
I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
This case arises from a parking citation that defendant received when his car was
parked in an MSU parking structure. On the day the citation was issued, MSU parking
enforcement employee Ricardo Rego was working on campus. Defendant confronted
Rego and asked if Rego was the one who had issued the citation. Defendant was
shouting, which led Rego to believe that defendant was acting aggressively. Rego got
into his service vehicle and called the campus police.3 Approximately 10 to 15 minutes
passed before the police arrived. During that time, Rego sat in his service vehicle and
completed the process for having an adjacent vehicle towed, while defendant stood
outside the service vehicle and took pictures of Rego with a camera phone.
Defendant was charged with the misdemeanor offense of violating MSU
Ordinance, § 15.05.4 A district court jury convicted defendant of violating the ordinance.
On appeal, the circuit court reversed the conviction on the basis that the ordinance was
unconstitutionally overbroad on its face. The circuit court also granted defendant’s
motion brought pursuant to MCR 7.101(O) to tax costs against the prosecution.
Ok. So far, so good. University employee issues a parking violation and the person receiving it gets verbally abusive about it. University employee notifies campus police who show up 10 to 15 minutes later
and arrest this guy who got ticketed because he is still
verbally badgering and photographing the university employee who ticketed him, and generally behaving in a manner that the campus police have now deemed to be 'disruptive.'
Next the court gets into what they see as the legal and constitutional issues at stake:
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court reviews de novo questions of constitutional law. This Court presumes
that ordinances are constitutional, and the party challenging the validity of the ordinance
has the burden of proving a constitutional violation.
Ok. Important point here and something well worth remembering. The courts presume
our regulators are acting in good faith when they draft laws and have given due regard to constitutional considerations when they did so. In short, if it's a law, there is a presumption
it is both legal and
constitutional until determined, by a court, to be otherwise.
So if you're going to challenge the constitutionality of something, it's your
responsibility to make a case for it. The courts will not, on their own, wade in and arbitrarily state something is unconstitutional. You have to complain and bring a case before them. Courts only try cases
. They do not act as an independent legal review board.Lesson: Speak up and be willing to go the distance if you think your rights have been violated.
Next the court takes a look at relevant legal issues and precedents:
We first address whether MSU Ordinance, § 15.05 is facially unconstitutional.
When considering a “facial” challenge to the breadth of a law on First Amendment
grounds, this Court considers “not merely the sporadic abuse of power by the censor but
the pervasive threat inherent in its very existence that constitutes the danger to freedom of
Ok...so here the court says that in order to rule on the constitutional issue, this particular case has to go beyond the specific instance and show there is a broader threat to freedom by the existence of the law being challenged. If it's a one-off case of some police misinterpreting rules or abusing their powers, that's not sufficient to have the law itself ruled unconstitutional.Lesson: The challenge has to be for an abuse that goes beyond the specific incident cited in the case. The courts realize that abuse of laws and power goes on all the time. But that alone is not enough to automatically raise a legal challenge up to the level of a constitutional issue.
Next comes more good stuff:
Before ruling that a law is unconstitutionally overbroad, this Court must determine
whether the law “reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct.”
The United States Supreme Court has held that criminal statutes must be scrutinized with
particular care, and those that prohibit a substantial amount of constitutionally protected
conduct may be facially overbroad even if they have a legitimate application.
Here the court makes some very important points. The court needs to consider the breadth
of the law in question to determine if 'broad' has crossed the line to become 'overbroad.' It also needs to determine if the allegedly overbroad wording is 'substantial' in the legal sense.
Next comes two very important and interesting points: (a) The US Supreme Court has gone on record as saying all
criminal statutes must be "scrutinized with particular care" for obvious reasons. (b) Even if a law has a legitimate application (i.e. it's badly needed), that alone does not automatically make it constitutional.
Next comes a reality check:
However, “invalidating a law that in some of its applications is perfectly constitutional—
particularly a law directed at conduct so antisocial that it has been made criminal—has
obvious harmful effects.” Thus, a statute’s overbreadth must “be substantial, not only
in an absolute sense, but also relative to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep.”
Here the court recognizes the other side of the issue. It's not good, or desirable, to willy-nilly invalidate a law that may have some constitutional niggles if its true aim is to prevent severely antisocial behaviors. So now it comes down to the original issue of just how big a real constitutional issue
this specific legal case raises.
Next comes what is the real triumph of this case - the ruling.
First the Michigan court cited a key federal case that ruled on a similar incident (emphasis added):
In Hill, the United State Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of an
ordinance that made it unlawful to “in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt” a
police officer. The Court concluded at the outset that this language prohibited verbal interruptions and, therefore, implicated constitutionally protected speech under the First
Amendment. The Court first noted that the ordinance was not limited in any way to
fighting words or obscene language. Instead, the ordinance imposed a blanket
prohibition on speech that interrupts an officer in any manner. Expressly clarifying that
the Constitution prohibits making such speech a crime, the Court explained that “[t]he
freedom of individuals verbally to 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.” While the Court acknowledged the difficulty of drafting precise
laws, it reiterated that it would invalidate those laws “that provide the police with
unfettered discretion to arrest individuals for words or conduct that annoy or offend
Ok...lots of good stuff here. But the key take away is that the real
problem is giving the police "unfettered discretion" to take action against people who annoy them. This is important because it goes right to the heart of US legal theory. The law should be the same
everywhere - and enforced in an equal
Situational discretion and judgement is the prerogative of the courts - not
the police force. And simply pissing off a police officer is not
in of itself a crime - an American attitude (and legal notion) that goes all the way back to the Boston Massacre
. (Historic note: all but two of the British soldiers that were tried by a colonial court for murder in the so-called "Boston Massacre" were acquitted. Only two were convicted of manslaughter - and only after it was determined they had willfully and irresponsibly "fired blindly into a crowd." Both received (for the time) very reduced sentences. The defense counsel for the British soldiers was none other than American uber-patriot John Adams. Apparently our earlier patriots had far more commitment to our legal principles than their modern counterparts do.)
Besides, as was implied by the Supreme Court, the US is not (or at least is not supposed
to be) a police state.
Which brings us to the actual ruling in the Michigan case where the court reaffirms the legal reasoning in the federal Hill
The MSU ordinance prohibits disruptions but does not specify the types of
disruptions that are prohibited. Thus, the plain language of the ordinance allows its
enforcement for even verbal disruptions. Moreover, like the ordinance that the United
States Supreme Court invalidated in Hill, the verbal disruptions that the MSU ordinance
criminalizes are not limited to those containing fighting words or obscene language.
Instead, the MSU ordinance explicitly criminalizes any disruption of the normal activity
of persons or entities carrying out activities for or with MSU. Not only does the
ordinance fail to limit the types of disruptions that are prohibited, it also protects a much
broader class of individuals than the ordinance at issue in Hill. The plain language of this
ordinance allows it to be enforced against anyone who disrupts in any way anyone
carrying out any activity for or with MSU. Like the ordinance in Hill, which was
“admittedly violated scores of times daily,” the MSU ordinance could be violated
numerous times throughout any given day given that there are seemingly infinite ways in
which someone might “disrupt” another who is engaged in an “activity” for or with
MSU. Thus, we believe that this ordinance, just like the ordinance in Hill, “criminalizes
a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech . . .
Basically they've said that the particular law in question is overly broad and unconstitutional for a number of reasons - and go on to say that it more significantly allows the police unacceptably broad discretion
in determining what
constitutes a violation of the law, as well as when (and if) and against whom
to enforce it.
Moreover, the distinction regarding whether an individual protected by the
ordinance has the power to arrest is an irrelevant one. An MSU student, for example,
enrolled in classes on campus is undoubtedly carrying out an activity with MSU and,
therefore, is protected by the ordinance. Nothing in the plain language of the ordinance
prevents a student who simply feels that he or she has been disrupted by the actions or
words of another person from seeking enforcement of this ordinance. Nor does the
ordinance language prevent a police officer from choosing to enforce the ordinance when
there is a complaint or simply when the officer witnesses somebody disrupting another
person’s activity. While not all protected individuals have the same power as a police
officer to arrest, the ordinance is nonetheless a criminal statute that subjects the violator
to a misdemeanor conviction and provides someone who does have the power to arrest
with the opportunity to do so whenever a protected individual is disrupted.
Accordingly, this ordinance can be said to “provide the police with unfettered discretion
to arrest individuals for words or conduct that annoy or offend them,” just as the
ordinance in Hill did. Thus, like the unconstitutional ordinance in Hill, the MSU
ordinance is “susceptible of regular application to protected expression,” regardless of
whether the protected individual has the power to arrest
As you can see, this goes deeper and beyond having the right to "insult" a Meter Maid in Michigan. Especially considering you may not
have the right to do that depending on how you choose to go about insulting one. "Fighting words" and physical intimidation are still considered illegal. Is flipping someone "the bird" a form of speech or an attempt at physical intimidation? And no mention was made of how photographing, or audio/video recording someone on your cellphone you're having an issue with might be interpreted.
But why not read the entire ruling? Fascinating stuff. It only runs 39 pages (double-spaced with footnotes). It includes a dissenting option which takes up 10 of those 39 pages and is also worth reading. Grab a copy here
. It's 15 minutes reading/thinking time well spent.