Home » News » Washington Supreme Court rejects restrictions under First Amendment vagueness doctrine

By David L. Hudson Jr., published on May 11, 2018

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The Washington Supreme Court applied the vagueness doctrine in deciding that community custody conditions imposed on a man violated his First Amendment free speech rights because they were too vague. The conditions restricted his access to pornographic materials, but he court said the prohibition was too vague and could apply to speech protected by the First Amendment.

A community custody condition imposed on a Washington man that prohibited him from possessing or accessing pornographic materials was too vague, the state high court ruled in State v. Padilla. The decision shows the importance of the vagueness doctrine in First Amendment law.


Jameel Padilla was convicted of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes. He had sent very inappropriate messages and imagery of adult nudity to a nine-year-old. For this he received a sentence of 75 days confinement and 12 months of community custody, which included multiple conditions. One of those conditions was that Padilla must refrain from possessing or accessing pornographic materials.


Padilla challenged this condition, arguing that it was too vague. Vague laws are problematic because they do not provide a person with sufficient notice of when his or her conduct would violate the law. Vague laws are also troubling because they invite selective and discriminatory enforcement. Finally, vague laws pose a special problem when impacting First Amendment freedoms, because it causes a chilling effect on expression.


After his conviction, Padilla appealed. The Washington Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and the pornography condition. Padilla then appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.


The condition’s definition of “pornographic materials” was “images of sexual intercourse, simulated or real, masturbation, or the display of intimate body parts.” The state argued that the law was not vague, because there was a definition of “pornographic materials” that provided sufficient guidance to people.


Padilla countered that the definition of pornographic material would include movies such as Titanic and television shows like Game of Thrones – expressive materials that depict simulated intercourse but would not fit most people’s definition of pornography.


The state high court agreed: “The prohibition against viewing depictions of intimate body parts impermissibly extends to a variety of works of arts, books, advertisements, movies, and television shows.”


Regarding the state’s argument that the condition defined pornographic materials, the court wrote that “[t]he presence of a vague definition does not save the condition from a vagueness challenge if it also encompasses a broad range of speech protected by the First Amendment.”


The court also determined that the case should be sent back down to the trial court to determine “whether the pornography prohibition is sufficiently crime related.” Conditions of community custody can force offenders to comply with crime-related prohibitions.


In this case, Padilla argued that his offense dealt with conduct toward a child but the pornographic materials definition included a broad swath of protected materials for adults. The Washington high court concluded: “We reverse the Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the condition and remand to the trial court to adopt a clear definition and consider whether the restriction of ‘pornographic materials’ is narrowly tailored based on the crime and the defendant.”



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