In February 2013, the Township of Readington (Hunterdon County), passed a "disorderly conduct" ordinance. More information and links to the ordinance and other related documents, including Township Attorney Sharon Dragan's half-hearted defense of the ordinance, are at the link in my reply to her.

One of my concerns involves part "c," which states:

Interfere with Religious Worship or Assembly. No person shall disquiet or interrupt any congregation or assembly meeting for religious worship or disquiet or interrupt any other meeting within the Township, by making a noise or by rude or indecent behavior, or profane discourse within the place of worship or other meeting place.

At first blush, it appears that the ordinance is directed only at people who act out during a church service. But a closer reading shows that in addition to religious assemblies, the ordinance also applies to "any other meeting within the Township." Accordingly, a citizen's conduct at a Readington Township Committee public meeting is within the scope of the ordinance. All that is needed to trigger the ordinance's application is "noise," "rude or indecent behavior" or "profane discourse."

Compare the ordinance to N.J.S.A. 2C:33-8, which states:

A person commits a disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, procession or gathering, he does an act tending to obstruct or interfere with it physically.

As can be seen, the statute prohibits a narrower range of conduct than the ordinance. Under the statute, a person's conduct is prohibited only if it constitutes physical interference. As legal commentators have noted:

... the section is limited to physical interference.... That is not to say that speech could never be physically disruptive; where an actor's speech was intended to make it impossible for the person addressing the meeting to be heard, speech would constitute a physical obstruction. Similarly, if a person with no privilege to speak in a meeting repeatedly interrupted it, he might well be in violation of the section whatever the content of his speech.

[Cannel, New Jersey Criminal Code Annotated, comment 2 on N.J.S.A. 2C:33–8 (1997) (referring to Commission Commentary).]

The state legislature, apparently recognizing the tension between public order and free speech, wrote its statute narrowly so that it would not dampen the "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open [debate on public issues that] may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." See Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949).

Readington Township, however, apparently wants to protect its public officials from sharp public comment. This it cannot do. Since the state has already, through enactment of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-8, struck a balance between public order and free speech at public meetings, the Township is preempted from striking a different balance.

I've asked Dragan to review the ordinance and recommend that the invalid sections be repealed. Let's see what actions she and the Township Committee take.