Authoritarian regimes’ unclear laws make anyone a suspect

Woman with closely trimmed hair surrounded by law enforcement officers (© Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)
Officers surround Li Wenzu in Beijing in 2018 as she protests the treatment of her husband, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang. Wang was convicted in December 2018 of “subverting state power,” according to the State Department's latest Human Rights Report on China. (© Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images)

For laws to be just, they must be clear. Citizens must know what is — and is not — against the law. Precise language helps ensure that laws are enforced fairly.

But some countries take advantage of their unclear laws. The Chinese government regularly imprisons its citizens for the broad crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” And the Iranian regime uses its own vague laws to jail women for “propaganda against the state” for simply declining to wear a hijab.

The U.S. Constitution protects American citizens from this problem. Any law that is not specific violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantee that “no person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

Protecting due process

Woman wearing headscarf being put into police vehicle (© AP Images)
Iran’s regime has imprisoned women who protested a mandatory hijab law on charges of “propaganda against the state.” Police detained this woman in Tehran in 2007 for wearing a loose-fitting hijab. (© AP Images)

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court explained when a law is too vague:

“The government violates this [due process] guarantee by taking away someone’s life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.

Meanwhile, in China, activists like Huang Xiaomin have been arrested for calling for party leaders to be elected. Others were arrested for raising environmental or human rights concerns or practicing journalism. All, apparently, had “provoked trouble.”

Timothy Sandefur, of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, describes vague laws this way: “Vagueness turns the law into a sword dangling over citizens’ heads — and because government officials can choose when and how to enforce their own interpretations of the law, vagueness gives them the power to make their decisions from unfair or discriminatory motives.”