Definition[edit | edit source]

Vagueness is a characteristic of laws that are imprecisely worded. A vague law restricting some form of free expression would be unclear as to what is allowed and what is not.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Vagueness doctrine is an outgrowth not of the First Amendment, but of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. A conviction fails to comport with due process if the statute under which it is obtained fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited, or is so standardless that it authorizes or encourages seriously discriminatory enforcement.[1] Although ordinarily "[a] plaintiff who engages in some conduct that is clearly proscribed cannot complain of the vagueness of the law as applied to the conduct of others," the courts have relaxed that requirement in the First Amendment context, permitting plaintiffs to argue that a statute is overbroad because it is unclear whether it regulates a substantial amount of protected speech.[2] But "perfect clarity and precise guidance have never been required even of regulations that restrict expressive activity."[3]

What renders a statute vague is not the possibility that it will sometimes be difficult to determine whether the incriminating fact it establishes has been proved; but rather the indeterminacy of precisely what that fact is. Thus, courts have struck down statutes that tied criminal culpability to whether the defendant's conduct was "annoying" or "indecent" — wholly subjective judgments without statutory definitions, narrowing context, or settled legal meanings.[4]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703, 732 (2000) (full-text); see also Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-09 (1972) (full-text).
  2. Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, Inc., 455 U.S. 489, 494-95, and nn. 6 & 7 (1982) (full-text); see also Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 870-74 (1997) (full-text).
  3. Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 794 (1989) (full-text).
  4. See Coates v. Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611, 614 (1971) (full-text); Reno, 521 U.S. at 870-71 & n.35.

See also[edit | edit source]

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