Free Speech

An Annoying Law

Free speech in Michigan


In December the Brighton, Michigan, City Council managed to simultaneously approve and violate a ban on being annoying in public.

The ordinance, which took effect on January 2, makes it illegal "to insult, accost, molest or otherwise annoy, either by word of mouth, sign, or motion, any person in any public place." It also forbids people "to engage in a course of conduct or repeatedly commit acts that alarm or seriously annoy another person and that serve no legitimate purpose." Either offense is a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine.

Among those annoyed by the new prohibitions was local gadfly Chetly Zarko, who noted that they seemed to fly in the face of a 1971 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Cincinnati ordinance that made it a crime for "three or more persons to assemble…on any of the sidewalks…and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by." The Court found that the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face, so vague that it violated the right to due process and so sweeping that it violated the rights to assembly and to freedom of association.

Brighton officials say the city's new ordinance is similar to the laws of other municipalities, which use them to prevent harassment and the disruption of public meetings. The Livingston Daily Press & Argus found that one of the towns cited as a model, Royal Oak, seems to have used its ordinance only once, to "muzzle a man who repeatedly snorted and oinked like a pig at his neighbor."