The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed a conviction of a street preacher arrested for making anti-gay comments on a sidewalk in downtown Greenville. The preacher was arrested for allegedly violating a city ordinance prohibiting molesting or disturbing others.
The court struck down a subsection of the city ordinance, ruling it unconstitutionally vague, and upheld that Joseph Bane had been wrongly convicted without sufficient evidence.
Bane was arrested in 2007 after he yelled at three women in downtown Greenville, saying “burn in hell,” according to the court opinion.
A trial judge ruled Bane was guilty of violating the city ordinance, which prohibits making obscene remarks that would willfully molest or disturb someone in a public space and prohibits making lewd gestures at others, and imposed a $200 fine. A circuit court upheld the trial judge’s ruling.
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that there is no evidence that Bane molested or disturbed anyone, the court said. Furthermore, the court struck down a provision of the ordinance that prohibited molesting or disturbing others in a way that would “humiliate, insult or scare any person,” ruling the subsection unconstitutionally vague.
The court compared the issue to the case Edwards v. South Carolina, in which a group of African-Americans was arrested for a breach of peace after protesting discriminatory actions against blacks peaceably outside the South Carolina State House. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the group was arrested on terms that were too generalized.
Samuel Harms, Bane’s attorney, said his client was happy the court struck down as unconstitutional the ordinance making it a crime, “to say anything that was insulting, humiliating or scary.”
Robert Coler, the Greenville assistant city attorney handling their case, said he was disappointed with the outcome because the case was about Bane's conduct, not his speech.
“It’s never been about speech or us trying to infringe upon somebody’s right to free speech,” Coler said. “The preachers were welcome to do and had done for hours that night. It’s only when they began engaging in conduct, singling out people as they walked by … directing comments about perceived lifestyles, that they disturbed or interfered with that individual.”
Coler said the city had repealed the subsection that had been struck down months before the Supreme Court’s decision.