City of Houston v. Hill,
482 U.S. 451 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987)

City of Houston, Texas v. Hill

No. 86-243

Argued March 23, 1987

Decided June 15, 1987

482 U.S. 451


Upon shouting at police in an attempt to divert their attention from his friend during a confrontation, appellee was arrested for "willfully . . . interrupt[ing] a city policeman . . . by verbal challenge during an investigation" in violation of a municipal ordinance making it unlawful for any person "to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty." After his acquittal in Municipal Court, appellee brought suit in Federal District Court challenging the ordinance's constitutionality and seeking, inter alia, damages and attorney's fees. The District Court held that the ordinance was not unconstitutionally vague or overbroad on its face, but the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the ordinance was substantially overbroad, since its literal wording punished and might deter a significant range of protected speech.


1. A municipal ordinance that makes it unlawful to interrupt a police officer in the performance of his duty is substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid on its face under the First Amendment. The ordinance in question criminalizes a substantial amount of, and is susceptible of regular application to, constitutionally protected speech, and accords the police unconstitutional enforcement discretion, as is demonstrated by evidence indicating that, although the ordinance's plain language is violated scores of times daily, only those individuals chosen by police in their unguided discretion are arrested. Appellant's argument that the ordinance is not substantially overbroad because it does not inhibit the exposition of ideas, but simply bans unprotected "core criminal conduct," is not persuasive. Since the ordinance's language making it unlawful to "assault" or "strike" a police officer is expressly preempted by the State Penal Code, its enforceable portion prohibits verbal interruptions of police, and thereby deals with speech, rather than with core criminal conduct. Moreover, although speech might be prohibited if it consists of "fighting words" that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, the ordinance in question is not limited to such expressions, but broadly applies to speech that "in any manner . . . interrupt[s] any policeman," and thereby impermissibly infringes the constitutionally protected freedom of individuals verbally to

Page 482 U. S. 452

oppose or challenge police action. Appellant's contention that the ordinance's sweeping nature is both inevitable and essential to maintain public order is also without merit, since the ordinance is not narrowly tailored to prohibit only disorderly conduct or fighting words, but impermissibly provides police with unfettered discretion to arrest individuals for words or conduct that are simply annoying or offensive. Pp. 482 U. S. 458-467.

2. Abstention -- assertedly to allow the state courts to reach a readily available limiting construction that would eliminate the ordinance's overbreadth -- would be inappropriate here. Even if this case did not involve a First Amendment facial challenge, for which abstention is particularly inappropriate, the ordinance in question is plain and unambiguous, and thus is not susceptible to a limiting construction. Moreover, it cannot be limited by severing discrete unconstitutional subsections, since its enforceable portion is unconstitutional in its entirety. Even if the municipal courts had not had many opportunities to narrow the ordinance's scope, appellant's claim that state courts had not had the chance to construe the ordinance would be unavailing in light of the ordinance's nonambiguity. Nor does the availability of certification to state courts under state law in itself render abstention appropriate where, as here, there is no uncertain question of state law to be resolved. Pp. 482 U. S. 467-471.

3. Although the preservation of liberty depends in part upon the maintenance of social order, the First Amendment requires that officers and municipalities respond with restraint in the face of verbal challenges to police action, since a certain amount of expressive disorder is inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom, and must be protected if that freedom would survive. Pp. 482 U. S. 471-472.

789 F.2d 1103, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post p. 482 U. S. 472. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post p. 482 U. S. 472. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, in Parts I and II of which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, and in Parts II and III of which SCALIA, J., joined, post p. 473. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post p. 482 U. S. 481.

Page 482 U. S. 453

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