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Overbreadth and Vagueness

Statutes and ordinances are often found to infringe on First Amendment rights because they are unconstitutionally vague or the breadth of the statute or ordinance extends so far that it infringes on protected speech. For example, some statutes and ordinances prohibiting loitering on public property have been found to be unconstitutional on the grounds of overbreadth since some people could be prosecuted for exercising their protected First Amendment rights. Similarly, statutes and ordinances restricting speech may be so vague that a person of ordinary intelligence could not determine what speech was restricted based on a reading of the law.

For example, in Virginia v. Hicks (2003), the City of Richmond, Virginia was challenged for restricting access to a street by non-residents, in an attempt to stop suspected drug dealers from frequenting the area. Loitering notices were served on outsiders, including Hicks, who told the police that he was delivering diapers. As a non-resident, he had previously been served notice, and this time, was arrested. He challenged the law as overbroad, alleging interference with his First Amendment rights. However, the Supreme Court upheld the law, finding First Amendment restrictions too speculative or insignificant to outweigh the government’s interest in controlling known crime in the area.

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