Gay Rights Activist and Supreme Court Victor Left His Mark on the First Amendment

Raymond Wayne Hill, who passed away at the age of 78 on November 24, was known for his championing of gay rights causes and his social activism. He co-founded Houston’s first LGBTQ organization, helped to galvanize the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and served as executive director of the Houston Human Rights League.

But, Hill also left his mark on the First Amendment, achieving a stunning victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Houston v. Hill (1987). Hill thought that a police officer was picking on a friend of his, another man with the last name of Hill. Hill approached the officer and said: “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?”

The officer arrested Ray Hill and charged him with violating an ordinance prohibiting the interruption of police officer duties. The ordinance provided: “It shall be unlawful for any person to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty, or any person summoned to aid in making an arrest.”

Hill won an acquittal on the criminal charges in municipal court. But, that didn’t stop Raymond Wayne Hill. He felt that the officer had abused his authority and Raymond Wayne Hill never backed down. Hill believed passionately in his cause, as he previously had been arrested for violating this same ordinance at least four previous times.

Hill filed a federal lawsuit, alleging a violation of his First Amendment free-speech rights. He contended that the ordinance was unconstitutional. A federal district court rejected Hill’s claims and upheld the ordinance. However, a federal appeals court reversed and found the ordinance unconstitutional.

The city then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He achieved victory in the Court of Last Resort. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan wrote that “the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”

He added that the “freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” He reasoned that the ordinance could not be read only to prohibit disorderly conduct or fighting words. In other words, the ordinance was simply too broad and invaded the province of free speech.

The decision is a significant one for a free society that believes in the ability of individuals to challenge government officials. For that, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Raymond Wayne Hill.

David L. Hudson, Jr., a Visiting Associate Professor of Legal Practice at Belmont University College of Law, is a First Amendment attorney and author who has written, co-written, or co-edited more than 40 books, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Documents Decoded: Freedom of Speech (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

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