How Cities Prohibit Annoyances

The 5,000 local ordinances that prohibit “annoyances” often focus on the fraught intersections of the public and private. And it’s probably no surprise that public employees often seek legal protections from annoying (or annoyed) citizens.

Joe Palazzolo reports on the ongoing (and probably never-ending) debate over the legality of laws that prohibit annoyances. In an article equal parts bemusing and alarming, Palazzolo reports, “[dozens] of cities and states have passed strictures that equate ‘annoying’ with ‘illegal,’ adding to an already existing stock of aging laws that employ the word. According to Municode, an online database of local laws, ‘annoy’ or some variation appears in more than 5,000 ordinances.”

“Many of these pass constitutional muster, because they spell out the things that irritate to the point of illegality, such as unreasonably loud music, honking, shouting, fighting and pets that near-constantly bark or yowl.”

But many such laws have not withheld legal scrutiny. For example, “[the] U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1971 case Coates v. Cincinnati that the word ‘annoying’ was too vague to support a criminal charge. The decision struck down an ordinance that made it illegal to assemble on the sidewalk ‘in a manner annoying to passersby.’

According to Palazzolo, there are many more examples of laws that might have a hard time standing up to the analysis of the Supreme Court. For example:

  • "A law in Vassar, Mich., makes it unlawful for any person to 'flirt' with or 'willfully annoy' a stranger."
  • "Lawrence, Mass., says no person 'shall in any way annoy another person' within city parks."
  • "In Winthrop, Mass., it's illegal to 'annoy another person' on any town beach."
  • "In Cumberland, Md., it's illegal to annoy city employees."
Full Story: In These Towns, Being Annoying Is a Criminal Offense


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