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Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

Fighting Words

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has extended considerable constitutional protection to dissident speech, it recognized several areas of expression which fall outside First Amendment protection. These areas of expression include words which are lewd, obscene, profane, libelous, and "fighting." "Fighting words" are so offensive and inflammatory they will likely provoke a violent response from the individual being addressed. These words are calculated to inflict injury and incite an immediate breach of peace. Any benefit derived from them is clearly outweighed by repulsive repercussions to social order and morality.

Fighting words are words aimed intentionally at a specific individual rather than a group. The circumstances under which such speech is uttered is also important in identifying when speech is constitutionally unprotected.

If a municipality desires to forbid a particular kind of speech considered to be "fighting," the resulting law must be narrowly written. It must not include expressions which are merely offensive to someone, hurt their feelings, or cause resentment. Also, the law may not prohibit words based only on a particular bias, such as involving race or religion. The law could be judged unconstitutionally discriminatory. A prohibition must, therefore, outlaw all "fighting words."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire - Significance, Court Develops Two-tiered Theory Of The First Amendment, Fighting Words