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Federal appeals court strikes down traffic ordinance that restricts speech

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit [official website] on Monday struck down [opinion, PDF] a St. Louis ordinance [Section 17.16.270, text] prohibiting conduct, including speech, that impedes pedestrians or vehicular traffic. The case was brought by a member of an organization called 9/11 Questions Meetup Group [advocacy website] after he and two other members were arrested at the Park Avenue Overpass in St. Louis, Missouri, for placing signs related to the 9/11 terrorist attack, creating a driving hazard. The court held that the ordinance in question violated the Due Process Clause because it failed to "provide fair notice of what is forbidden." The court noted that the language of the ordinance was not the problem but rather that the ordinance did not provide people with "fair notice of when their actions are likely to become unlawful." The problem with the ordinance was that it criminalized speech that may cause traffic obstruction thereby relying on third parties' reaction to the speech. Thus, according to the court, the protester would face difficulties in predicting what speech may result in traffic obstruction and what speech may not. The court also stressed that such unpredictability would have a "chilling effect" on protected First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] activity. Monday's ruling effectively reversed a previous decision by the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri [official website] which held that the ordinance was constitutional.

A similar ruling took place in 2011 when the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] struck down [JURIST report] a City of Redondo Beach anti-day laborer ordinance [3-7.1601 text] as an unconstitutional restriction on speech. The ordinance prohibited individuals from standing on a street or highway to solicit "employment, business, or contributions" from passing motorists. The court held that the ordinance was not narrowly tailored required under Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators' Association [Oyez summary] thereby restricting more speech than necessary.

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