Modern Tests and Standards: Vagueness, Overbreadth, Strict Scrutiny, Intermediate Scrutiny, and Effectiveness of Speech Restrictions.

Vagueness is a due process vice that can be brought into play with regard to any criminal and many civil statutes,541 but it has a special signficance when applied to governmental restrictions of speech: fear that a vague restriction may apply to one’s speech may deter constitutionally protected speech as well as constitutionally unprotected speech. Vagueness has been the basis for voiding numerous such laws, especially in the fields of loyalty oaths,542 obscenity and indecency,543 and restrictions on public demonstrations.544 It is usually combined with the overbreadth doctrine, which focuses on the need for precision in drafting a statute that may affect First Amendment rights;545 an overbroad statute that sweeps under its coverage both protected and unprotected speech and conduct will normally be struck down as facially invalid, although in a non-First Amendment situation the Court would simply void its application to protected conduct.546

But, even in a First Amendment situation, the Court has written, “there are substantial social costs created by the overbreadth doctrine when it blocks application of a law to constitutionally unprotected speech, or especially to constitutionally unprotected conduct. To ensure that these costs do now swallow the social benefits of declaring a law ‘overbroad,’ we have insisted that a law’s application to protected speech be ‘substantial,’ not only in an absolute sense, but also relative to the scope of the law’s plainly legitimate applications, before applying the ‘strong medicine’ of overbreadth invalidation. . . . Rarely, if ever, will an overbreadth challenge succeed against a law or regulation that is not specifically addressed to speech or to conduct necessarily associated with speech (such as picketing or demonstrating).”547

Out of a concern that is closely related to that behind the overbreadth doctrine, the Court has insisted that when the government seeks to carry out a permissible goal and it has available a variety of effective means to do so, “[i]f the First Amendment means anything, it means that regulating speech must be a last—not first— resort.”548 Thus, the Court applies “strict scrutiny” to content-based regulations of fully protected speech; this means that it requires that such regulations “promote a compelling interest” and use “the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest.”549

With respect to most speech restrictions to which the Court does not apply strict scrutiny, the Court applies intermediate scrutiny; i.e., scrutiny that is “midway between the ‘strict scrutiny’ demanded for content-based regulation of speech and the ‘rational basis’ standard that is applied—under the Equal Protection Clause—to government regulation of nonspeech activities.”550 Intermediate scrutiny requires that the governmental interest be “significant” or “substantial” or “important” (but not necessarily “compelling”), and it requires that the restriction be narrowly tailored (but not necessarily the least restrictive means to advance the governmental interest). Speech restrictions to which the Court does not apply strict scrutiny include those that are not content-based (time, place, or manner restrictions; incidental restrictions) and those that restrict categories of speech to which the Court accords less than full First Amendment protection (campaign contributions; commercial speech).551 Note that restrictions on expression may be content-based, but will not receive strict scrutiny if they “are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.”552 Examples are bans on nude dancing, and zoning restrictions on pornographic theaters or bookstores, both of which, although content-based, receive intermediate scrutiny on the ground that they are “aimed at combating crime and other negative secondary effects,” and not at the content of speech.553

The Court uses tests closely related to one another in free speech cases in which it applies intermediate scrutiny. It has indicated that the test for determining the constitutionality of an incidental restriction on speech “in the last analysis is little, if any, different from the standard applied to time, place, or manner restrictions,”554 and that “the validity of time, place, or manner restrictions is determined under standards very similar to those applicable in the commercial speech context.”555

In addition, the Supreme Court generally requires—even when applying less than strict scrutiny—that, “[w]hen the government defends a regulation on speech as a means to redress past harms or prevent anticipated harms, it must do more than simply ‘posit the existence of the disease sought to be cured.’ . . . It must demonstrate that the recited harms are real, not merely conjectural, and that the regulation will in fact alleviate these harms in a direct and material way.”556 The Court has held, however, that to sustain a denial of a statute denying minors access to sexually explicit material “requires only that we be able to say that it was not irrational for the legislature to find that exposure to material condemned by the statute is harmful to minors.”557

In certain other contexts, the Court has relied on “common sense” rather than requiring the government to demonstrate that a recited harm was real and not merely conjectural. For example, it held that a rule prohibiting high school coaches from recruiting middle school athletes did not violate the First Amendment, finding that it needed “no empirical data to credit [the] common-sense conclusion that hard-sell [speech] tactics directed at middle school students could lead to exploitation . . . .”558 On the use of common sense in free speech cases, Justice Souter wrote: “It is not that common sense is always illegitimate in First Amendment demonstration. The need for independent proof varies with the point that has to be established . . . . But we must be careful about substituting common assumptions for evidence when the evidence is as readily available as public statistics and municipal property evaluations, lest we find out when the evidence is gathered that the assumptions are highly debatable.”559


The vagueness doctrine generally requires that a statute be precise enough to give fair warning to actors that contemplated conduct is criminal, and to provide adequate standards to enforcement agencies, factfinders, and reviewing courts. See, e.g., Connally v. General Const. Co., 269 U.S. 385 (1926); Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451 (1939); Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379 (1979); Village of Hoffman Estates v. The Flipside, 455 U.S. 489 (1982). back
E.g., Cramp v. Board of Pub. Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961); Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964); Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967). See also Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030 (1991) (attorney discipline, extrajudicial statements). back
E.g., Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507 (1948); Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952); Interstate Circuit v. City of Dallas, 390 U.S. 676 (1968); Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 870–874 (1997). In National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998), the Court held that a “decency” criterion for the awarding of grants, which “in a criminal statute or regulatory scheme . . . could raise substantial vagueness concerns,” was not unconstitutionally vague in the context of a condition on public subsidy for speech. back
E.g., Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940); Gregory v. City of Chicago, 394 U.S. 111 (1969); Coates v. City of Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611 (1971). See also Smith v. Goguen, 415 U.S. 566 (1974) (flag desecration law); Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974) (punishment of opprobrious words); Hynes v. Mayor of Oradell, 425 U.S. 610 (1976) (door-to-door canvassing). For an evident narrowing of standing to assert vagueness, see Young v. American Mini Theatres, 427 U.S. 50, 60 (1976). back
NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 432–33 (1963). back
E.g., Kunz v. New York, 340 U.S. 290 (1951); Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500 (1964); United States v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258 (1967); Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241 (1967); Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974); Massachusetts v. Oakes, 491 U.S. 576, 581 (1989). But see Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, 128 S. Ct. 1184, 1190 (2008) (facial challenge to burden on right of association rejected “where the statute has a ‘plainly legitimate sweep’ ”). back
Virginia v. Hicks, 539 U.S. 113, 119–20, 124 (2003) (italics in original; citations omitted) (upholding, as not addressed to speech, an ordinance banning from streets within a low-income housing development any person who is not a resident or employee and who “cannot demonstrate a legitimate business or social purpose for being on the premises”). Virginia v. Hicks cited Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601 (1973), which, in the majority opinion and in Justice Brennan’s dissent, id. at 621, contains extensive discussion of the overbreadth doctrine. Other restrictive decisions include Arnett v. Kennedy, 416 U.S. 134, 158–64 (1974); Parker v. Levy, 417 U.S. 733, 757–61 (1974); and New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 766–74 (1982). Nonetheless, the doctrine continues to be used across a wide spectrum of First Amendment cases. Bigelow v. Virginia, 421 U.S. 809, 815–18 (1975); Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975); Doran v. Salem Inn, 422 U.S. 922, 932–34 (1975); Village of Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 444 U.S. 620, 633–39 (1980); Secretary of State of Maryland v. Joseph H. Munson Co., 467 U.S. 947 (1984) (charitable solicitation statute placing 25 percent cap on fundraising expenditures); City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987) (city ordinance making it unlawful to “oppose, molest, abuse, or interrupt” police officer in performance of duty); Board of Airport Comm’rs v. Jews for Jesus, 482 U.S. 569 (1987) (resolution banning all “First Amendment activities” at airport); Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 874–879 (1997) (statute banning “indecent” material on the Internet). back
Thompson v. Western States Medical Center, 535 U.S. 357, 373 (2002). back
Sable Communications of California v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989). back
Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, Inc., 512 U.S. 753, 790 (1994) (parentheses omitted). The Court, however, applied a rational basis standard to uphold a state statute that banned the sale of sexually explicit material to minors. Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 641 (1968). Of course, governmental restrictions on some speech, such as obscenity and fighting words, receive no First Amendment scrutiny, except that particular instances of such speech may not be discriminated against on the basis of hostility “towards the underlying message expressed.” R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 386 (1992). back
E.g., Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 481 (1988) (time, place, and manner restriction upheld as “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leav[ing] open ample alternative channels of communication”); Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 798–799 (1989) (incidental restriction upheld as “promot[ing] a substantial governmental interest that would be achieved less effectively absent the regulation”); Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 25 (1976) (campaign contribution ceiling “may be sustained if the State demonstrates a sufficiently important interest and employs means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedom”); Board of Trustees v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469, 480 (1989) (commercial speech restrictions need not be “absolutely the least severe that will achieve the desired end,” but must exhibit a “ ‘fit’ between the legislature’s ends and the means chosen to accomplish those ends—a fit that is not necessarily perfect, but reasonable . . . ” (internal quotation mark and citation omitted)). But see Thompson v. Western States Medical Center, 535 U.S. 357, 371 (2002) (commercial speech restriction struck down as “more extensive than necessary to serve” the government’s interests). back
Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41, 48 (1986) (emphasis in original). back
Erie v. Pap’s A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 291 (2000) (upholding ban on nude dancing); Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41, 47 (1986) (upholding zoning of “adult motion picture theaters”). Zoning and nude dancing cases are discussed below under “Non-obscene But Sexually Explicit and Indecent Expression.” back
Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 298 (1984). back
United States v. Edge Broadcasting Co., 509 U.S. 418, 430 (1993). back
Turner Broadcasting System v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 664 (1994) (federal “must-carry” provisions, which require cable television systems to devote a portion of their channels to the transmission of local broadcast television stations, upheld as a content-neutral, incidental restriction on speech, not subject to strict scrutiny). The Court has applied the same principle in weighing the constitutionality of two other types of speech restrictions to which it does not apply strict scrutiny: restrictions on commercial speech, Edenfield v. Fane, 507 U.S. 761, 770–771 (1993) (“a governmental body seeking to sustain a restriction on commercial speech must demonstrate that the harms it recites are real”), and restrictions on campaign contributions, Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U.S. 377, 392 (2000) (“We have never accepted mere conjecture as adequate to carry a First Amendment burden”). back
Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 641 (1968) (upholding a ban on sale to minors of “girlie” magazines, and noting that, although “studies all agree that a causal link [between ‘minors’ reading and seeing ‘sexual material’ and an impairment in their ‘ethical and moral development’] has not been demonstrated, they are equally agreed that a causal link has not been disproved either,” id. at 641–42). In a case involving a federal statute that restricted “signal bleed” of sexually explicit programming on cable television, a federal district court wrote, “We recognize that the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence does not require empirical evidence. Only some minimal amount of evidence is required when sexually explicit programming and children are involved.” Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc. v. U.S., 30 F. Supp. 2d 702, 716 (D. Del. 1998), aff’d, 529 U.S. 803 (2000). In a case upholding a statute that, to shield minors from “indecent” material, limited the hours that such material may be broadcast on radio and television, a federal court of appeals wrote, “Congress does not need the testimony of psychiatrists and social scientists in order to take note of the coarsening of impressionable minds that can result from a persistent exposure to sexually explicit material. . . .” Action for Children’s Television v. FCC, 58 F.3d 654, 662 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (en banc), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1043 (1996). A dissenting opinion complained, “[t]here is not one iota of evidence in the record . . . to support the claim that exposure to indecency is harmful—indeed, the nature of the alleged ‘harm’ is never explained.” Id. at 671 (Edwards, C.J., dissenting). back
Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Ass’n v. Brentwood Academy, 551 U.S. 291, 300 (2007). back
City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, Inc., 535 U.S. 425, 459 (2002) (Souter, J., dissenting). back