State Court Strikes Down Michigan State University Ordinance on First Amendment Grounds

By October 9, 2009

Last week, a Michigan county circuit court struck down a Michigan State University (MSU) ordinance as unconstitutional after determining that the ordinance, which prohibited "disrupt[ing] the normal activity or molest[ing] the property of any person, firm, or agency while that person, firm, or agency is carrying out service, activity or agreement for or with" the university, violated the First Amendment. In the court’s opinion (PDF), Judge Paula Manderfield ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutionally overbroad.

The case, Michigan v. Rapp, involves Jared Rapp, a former MSU law student who became angry with an MSU Parking Enforcement employee after his car was ticketed, allegedly while time still remained on the meter. Rapp confronted the employee, engaging in what the court labeled a "five-minute, allegedly heated conversation" in which Rapp took the employee’s picture with his cell phone and demanded to know the employee’s name. The employee called for backup, and Rapp was charged with a violation of the ordinance (MSU ordinance 15.05). 

Before the trial court, which first heard the case (the county circuit court that issued the ruling we’re discussing here is the first level of appellate court in the Michigan state court system), Rapp moved to have the charge dismissed by challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance on First Amendment grounds, but the trial court denied the motion. Rapp was convicted of violating the ordinance, but he moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, again on the question of whether or not the ordinance was unconstitutional. The trial court denied that motion, and Rapp appealed to the county circuit court. 

Judge Manderfield’s opinion overturns the trial court’s verdict, reversing Rapp’s conviction and dismissing the charges after determining that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Relying on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987), in which the Court found an ordinance making it unlawful to "to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty" to be unconstitutionally overbroad, Judge Manderfield finds MSU’s ordinance equally unconstitutional. Judge Manderfield concludes that while the section of the MSU ordinance dealing with "molest[ing]… property" legitimately prohibits criminal activity, "the ordinance, by barring any person from ‘[disrupting] the normal activity’ of such a person, firm, or agency just as obviously criminalizes an extremely broad range of speech." 

Further, Judge Manderfield notes that the ordinance is insufficiently tailored to prohibit only unprotected speech–a failing that means, as Rapp discovered, that "a demand for the name of the individual who was issuing the parking citations was sufficient to result in violation of the statute." As a result, the ordinance is a textbook example of overbreadth; that is, the ordinance "sweeps within its ambit a substantial amount of protected speech along with that which it may legitimately regulate." Doe v. University of Michigan, 721 F. Supp. 852, 864 (E.D. Mich. 1989), citing Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 612 (1973). 

Finally, Judge Manderfield notes that the ordinance unacceptably allows police "unconstitutional discretion in enforcement" because, as her opinion points out, "the question of what constitutes ‘disrupting the normal activity’ of someone associated with MSU is an extremely subjective determination." 

FIRE supporters already know that Michigan State University is no friend of freedom of speech, having earned itself a spot on FIRE’s Red Alert list, so perhaps the fall of this unconstitutional regulation should come as no surprise. Unfortunately, Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III has already indicated to the Lansing State Journal that Judge Manderfield’s ruling will be appealed. We will of course keep you posted.

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Schools: Michigan State University