COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ South Carolina's high court has overturned the conviction of a man arrested for preaching against homosexuality on a sidewalk in downtown Greenville, ruling Monday that the city ordinance prohibiting humiliating, offensive, scary or obscene comments is too vague to be enforced.
Joseph Bane and another man were arrested in 2007 and accused of shouting at a lesbian couple on a street corner in downtown Greenville. Two of the women testified that Bane had yelled a slur at them and said “you will burn in hell,'' according to court documents.
Bane was convicted in municipal court and ordered to pay a $200 fine. The other street preacher, Joshua Glidewell, was cleared but sued the city of Greenville in federal court, claiming his free speech rights had been violated. Last month, Glidewell and attorneys for the city signed an agreement that the city would pay Glidewell $2,500 and that the sides would negotiate the payment of attorneys' fees.
The Greenville city ordinance made it illegal for anyone to “molest or disturb any person by the making of obscene remarks or such remarks and actions as would humiliate, insult, or scare any person.'' The language is too vague to be enforced, making the ordinance unconstitutional, the court ruled.
“This provision is subjective because the words that humiliate, insult, or scare one person may not have the same effect on another person,'' Justice Costa Pleicones wrote. “Therefore, people of common intelligence may be forced to guess at the provision's meaning and may differ as to its applicability.''
Pleicones cited a case from 1963 in which a group of black people were convicted of breach of peace after they marched peacefully on a sidewalk around the South Carolina Statehouse grounds to protest what they saw as discrimination against other blacks. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the arrest infringed their right to free speech because the alleged offense was too vague.
Bane's attorney, who has said police can use the ordinance to threaten people, restricting their free speech rights, on Monday praised the court's ruling and said his client had been vindicated.
“He is very pleased that Christians will be able to continue to preach against the sin of homosexuality on the streets of Greenville,'' Samuel Harms said about Bane, who he said continues to preach on the city's streets. “A city ordinance that criminalizes words that humiliate, insult or scare any person is clearly unconstitutional, and my client should not have had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to have the city realize that their city ordinance was unconstitutional.''
Since Bane's conviction, Greenville has amended its public disturbance ordinance, removing the section ruled unconstitutional by the court and adding another section ruling that people with special events permits will not be subject to the other parts of the public disturbance ordinance.
Ron McKinney, Greenville's city attorney, said Monday he respected the court's decision but stood by the city's contention that people deserve protection from disturbances on city streets.
“We have no objection to street preachers coming on the streets of Greenville and preaching all they want. They do that regularly,'' McKinney said. “We just see some value in protecting the people who are using the sidewalk for its intended purpose.''