November 1, 2009
I want to report an important free speech victory in Georgia in a case involving the distribution of religious tracts on a public sidewalk in Atlanta.
The case was important because our client was charged with "disorderly conduct" for distributing religious tracts on a public sidewalk near a MARTA (transit authority) station.
Our client was confronted by MARTA officers who ordered him to leave the sidewalk and threatened him with arrest if he returned to distribute any literature. The officers arrested our client after he refused to leave the sidewalk.
The officers based their arrest on an Atlanta "disorderly conduct" ordinance that prohibits "interfering by acts of physical obstruction [with another person's] pursuit of a lawful occupation" and "stand[ing] or remain[ing] in or about any...sidewalk...so as to impede the flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic."
We defended our client in court filing a motion to dismiss the charge and arguing that the ordinance was vague and overbroad in violation of both the United States Constitution and the Georgia Constitution.
Our argument was clear: A law is unconstitutionally vague when it invites arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement by leaving the definition of its terms to the discretion of individual law enforcement officers. The Atlanta ordinance was unconstitutionally vague because it allowed individual officers to interpret its unclear terms to cover peaceful religious leafleting, leaving the public with no reasonable means of knowing how the ordinance would be applied in the future.
In addition, a law is unconstitutionally overbroad when it encompasses a significant amount of constitutionally protected activities within its scope. While laws must be narrowly tailored in light of the First Amendment's robust protection of free speech, the Atlanta ordinance covered a broad range of non-disruptive free speech activities. Censoring religious expression is not necessary to further the City's interest in ensuring that the public may safely access public transportation.
The City of Atlanta found our motion persuasive and dismissed the criminal charge against our client, clearing the way for him to continue to exercise his First Amendment rights.
We will continue to fight to protect the freedoms of speech and religion in the public arena.