Smith v. Goguen

LOCATION:Cleveland Board of Education

DOCKET NO.: 72-1254
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 415 US 566 (1974)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 1973 / Nov 13, 1973
DECIDED: Mar 25, 1974

Charles E. Chase – for appellant
Evan T. Lawson – for appellee

Facts of the case


Media for Smith v. Goguen

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 13, 1973 in Smith v. Goguen
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 12, 1973 in Smith v. Goguen

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 25, 1974 in Smith v. Goguen

Warren E. Burger:

The disposition in number 72-1254, Smith and Goguen and 72-1264, Mayor of Philadelphia against the Educational Equality League will be announced by Mr. Justice Powell.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

This case is here on appeal from the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Appellee wore a smaller representation of the United States’ Flag on the seat of his trousers.

He was prosecuted under Massachusetts Statute that subjects to criminal liability anyone who publicly treats contemptuously the Flag of the United States.

Although other portions of the statute deal broadly with misuse and mutilation of the Flag, appellee was charged only with treating it contemptuously.

He was convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the conviction.

Thereafter a Federal District Court found the statute unconstitutionally vague and overbroad and granted a writ of habeas corpus.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

We agree with both the District Court and the Court of Appeals that the contempt portion of the statute is void for vagueness under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The statute, whose sweeping language has never been narrowed by the State Courts, affords inadequate warning of the forbidden conduct.

Moreover it leaves the police, the courts and juries free to prosecute and impose criminal liabilities on little more than their own preferences for treatment of the flag.

Accordingly, we affirm the Court of Appeals.

Mr. Justice White has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Blackmun and Rehnquist have filed dissenting opinions in which the Chief Justice had joined.