Void for Vagueness

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  • Post last modified:July 9, 2017

Void for Vagueness

Vagueness or ambiguity is an important issue concerning criminal laws. Any such law that is vague or ambiguous leaves a scope for misuse. This topic has been addressed through the use of Void for Vagueness Doctrine. It is a constitutional rule regarding clarity in the criminal laws.  The law asserts that  the criminal laws should clearly express which activities are punishable under them. The distinction between punishable and non punishable should be clear. According to the doctrine the law should be stated so clearly that a man of average intelligence must be able to identify the distinction. A person of average intelligence must not find it difficult to understand that which activities are prohibited under the law and what punishment can be applicable in case of misconduct. Unless, a law meets these requirements the law is not enforceable and will be considered void under the Void for Vagueness Doctrine.

The basic principle that underlies this doctrine is that common man should be able  to identify punishable conduct from non-punishable conduct. Therefore, laws must be stated as clearly and in as simple a language that is easily comprehensible for the layman. The doctrine mainly aims to encourage states to draft laws in a way that they define and distinguish the lawful from the unlawful clearly. There should not be any vagueness which can prove potentially misleading and lead to discriminatory enforcement of any particular law. The law should be clear about what kind of behavior it is trying to establish and what it is trying to prohibit.


A statute can be held as void for vagueness  if its language is ambiguous or it makes an ambiguous statement. Such an ambiguity can  give rise to difficulties regarding interpretation as well as application of the law. However, such ambiguities can  be judged by whether  the prohibitions are easily identifiable for the common man or not. The layman test can be applied to judge if the law is clear about the ends it is trying to achieve. Historically, courts have come across several such cases where it has become difficult to judge if a particular law prohibits a specific act clearly or not. Another important purpose this doctrine serves is to prevent encroachment upon the freedoms under the First Amendment like Freedom of Speech and Religion.

An important case that can be cited in relation to the doctrine is that  of the Fox Television. Fox had faced allegations related to violation of decency related regulations. June 2012; the court decided in the favor of Fox television. Supreme Court’s verdict given in the favor of Fox stated that  the standards set by the Federal Communication Commission were vague. The rules set down by the commission were narrow, the court stated. The did not broadly identify the range of government’s authority in terms of regulating indecent material on television. Fox’s broadcast of expletives used by celebrities on television had given rise to protest. The court decided that it was a violation of the broadcaster’s due process rights.


The FCC guidelines applicable at the time the event took place in 2002, that  broadcasts between 6 and 10 pm dwelling upon sexual or excretory organs and activities shall be  considered indecent. However, the court duly noted that the commission had failed in this regard to clearly notify the broadcaster that  the use of expletives or even partial nudity could be indecent enough to attract legal action. The decision by Supreme Court in this case clearly shows that guidelines or laws should be clear enough to draw a line between punishable and not punishable. However, the line must not be thin to make distinction difficult. It should clearly outline where someone would be accused of having crossed the line.

This doctrine mainly tries to minimize the uncertainty regarding law and the legal system. Their must be enough clarity to identify the distinction between what is provided and what is prohibited. There should  be clarity and precision both to make it easy for the layman to understand the requirements of the law. The lawful and unlawful should be clearly distinguished without leaving any chances open for mistakes. While this doctrine is generally applicable in criminal cases, it is also sometimes applied to the civil cases.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.