The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled a Greenville law unconstitutional for penalizing speech that “humiliates, insults, or scares.”
The case dealt with street preacher Joseph Bane, who was preaching against homosexuality in downtown Greenville when he yelled “Faggots, you are going to burn in Hell” at three women passing by. At that point, a Greenville police officer on the scene cited Bane for violating a Greenville ordinance that makes it illegal to “disturb any person by the making of any obscene remarks… as would humiliate, insult, or scare any person.”
After a city judge fined him $200, Bane appealed to state circuit judge Edwin Miller, claiming the Greenville ordinance was unconstitutional because its wording was too vague. Miller disagreed and allowed the fine to stand. Bane then appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision in an opinion released Monday. In its ruling, the Court said speech that could “humiliate, insult and scare” one person may not have the same effect on another.
USC law professor Jay Bender said the Supreme Court’s ruling is consistent with past decisions on free speech cases.
What the Greenville ordinance seems to have been used for in this case was to punish speech. Something more than speech is required for it to be punishable… If you’re standing on a street corner preaching and you’re telling the world that somebody’s going to hell or passers-by that they’re going to hell, or they’re adulturers or sinners… I don’t see how that could be punished.
The justices pointed to a 1963 US Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution does not allow a local government to make criminal the “peaceful expression of unpopular views.”
The state court also ruled the Greenville judge should have allowed Bane’s motion for directed verdict to proceed. A defendant can file for directed verdict if he or she feels the prosecution presented no evidence that a crime had been committed.