How To Do a Legal Analysis of a Fact Situation

URBS/PLSI 513 / GEOG 658 "Politics, Law, and the Urban Environment"

Richard LeGates

How to Do A Legal Analysis of a Fact Situation

The purpose of reading cases is to learn what the law is so that knowledge can be used to resolve conflicts which arise in analogous (but usually somewhat different) fact situations.

Lawyers approach analyzing a fact situation differently than most nonlawyers, including students at the beginning of this course.

Here is a simple approach which will help you approach legal analysis of fact situations the way lawyers do. If you master this simple, five part technique through in-class practice and apply it to legal analysis of fact situations on the midterm and final exams you will be well on the way to good legal analysis.

Later, once you master this technique you can become more subtle, creative, and individualistic. In your first figure drawing class you might learn a stylized way to get the figure's dimensions right; then loosen up and become Rembrandt.

So to get started....Follow these steps:

1. State the issue(s) in the case;

2. Describe what the law is based on the holdings of cases you have read for the course. Cite the cases by name and restate its holding;

3. Apply the law to the fact situation, stating the probable outcome of the case;

4. Describe differences between the fact situation you are analyzing and the fact situation in the cases you cited which might lead to a different outcome than what you indicated in step 3;

5. Discuss the fundamental nature of the legal conflict, the public policy issues involved and what you feel the law should be. Here is an example of a fact situation and a legal analysis.

1. Benny Boffo, a disabled Vietnam Vet, sculpts large, gruesome anti-

war statues. In the front yard of his house at the corner of

19th and Holloway Avenues he erects a 20' statue of a wounded

soldier holding a banner with the word "Why?" on it. The following

month he erects another 20' statue of another wounded soldier with

a banner which says "Never again". Each month thereafter he erects

another similar statue. A year later the S.F. Board of supervisors

enacts a law prohibiting the erection of political sculptures over

5' high in front yards in San Francisco. When Boffo refuses to take

down the sculptures he is criminally prosecuted under the new law.

Based on class readings analyze this fact situation.




1. The issue


This case involves a first amendment issue regarding the right of a city to limit expression.


2. The law


The first amendment of the U.S. constitution prohibits the federal government from making any law abridging the freedom of speech. This prohibition has been applied to the states (and their political subdivisions such as cities) via the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. So generally courts look with disfavor on any law which abridges the freedom of speech. "Speech" has been interpreted to include non-verbal expression, so a sculpture -- particularly one with a written word or words on it would constitute speech. However freedom of speech is not absolute.

Courts have held that the first amendment does not protect people who use speech to incite violence or cry "fire" in a crowded theater. In the Stover case the NY court of appeals held that hanging rags and scarecrows on multiple clotheslines in the defendant's front yard to protest taxes was not a form of speech protected by the first amendment and that a city may prohibit locating clotheslines in a front yard without violating the first amendment. They viewed this as "bizarre" behavior whose value lay in its form rather than its content. Just as cities may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of parades or speeches, they should arguably be able to reasonably regulate the "manner" of communication. Since there were other avenues open to defendants to express their ideas the court permitted the law to stand.


3. Applying the law to these facts


Since freedom of speech is not absolute and Boffo is erecting large, gruesome statues in his front yard it is likely that the court will rule in favor of the city. This situation is similar to Stover in that Boffo's actions are arguably "bizarre", his form of speech offensive to community standards, and there are other avenues of communication open to him. Limiting such statues to five feet is arguably a reasonable reguation.


4. Differences between these facts and facts of the cases that might

lead to a different outcome.


There are some important differences between these facts and the Stover case which might lead a court to decide against the city and in favor of Boffo. If the ordinance just regulates "political" sculptures it is not content neutral and should be struck down. Boffo's sculptures of wounded soldiers are more directly connected to his anti-war message than Stovers' rags were to a protest against high taxes. Unlike Stover Boffo's sculptures contain verbal communication -- written words which arguably should receive greater protection than abstract non-verbal communication. Unlike the Stover ordinance, there is no procedure for a hardship appeal in the San Francisco ordinance. Since Boffo is disabled he may have fewer avenues of communication open to him; for example his disability might make it impossible to picket or make speeches. One or more of these differences might make a court to decide in Boffo's favor.


5. The fundamental nature of the legal conflict, the public policy issues

involved and what the law should be.


This situation presents a conflict between an individual property owner's right to express his opinion, even in an unconventional way, versus society's interest in an aesthetically pleasing built environment free from bizarre and jarring artifacts. On the one hand society should protect "the right to be different" and allow people to use their own property as they see fit so long as it does not affect other people's health, safety (and perhaps welfare or morals). The more we let majority opinion govern how people may use their property the less free our society becomes. We stifle individuality, creativity, and the clash of competing points of view. Political discourse is often jarring. Unpopular points of view by their very nature are upsetting to some people. Even though Boffo's sculptures may be jarring and offensive the overriding value of protecting individual freedom must take precedence here. The ordinance should be struck down.


Some Practice Fact situations



1. San Francisco State prohibits spray-painting on exterior or interior

walls of any building. SFSU students for A Tuition Freeze spray

"No more fee hikes" on the walls of every classroom in Old Science.

They are expelled, but sue for readmission.


2. San Bruno adopts an ordinance prohibiting storage of undriveable cars

or car parts in any portion of a yard visible from a street. Jones leaves

three old cars, two engine blocks and a tail fin in his front yard. The

city fines him.


3. After the Polly Klass kidnapping/murder Petaluma passes a child

safety ordinance prohibiting location of adult movie theaters within one

mile of any private residence. The ordinance was introduced and passed

unanimously within five minutes without study or debate.


4. The city of Ross establishes an architectural review board consisting of

three licensed architects who are to review the paint color of any

proposed new houses for consistency with other houses. The stated

purpose of the ordinance is to preserve the character of Ross. Jones

proposes building a stately brown home similar in design and quality

to other homes on Forest lane, all of which are white. After a careful

review the architectural review board denies Jones' building permit

based on a written finding that the proposed house color is inconsistent

with neighboring houses and that therefore his house would not

preserve the character of Ross.