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Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

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Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Chaplinsky (Petitioner), was arrested for yelling offensive words to a city official while on the street.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. “Fighting words” are an unprotected form of speech.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Derisive and annoying words can be taken as coming within the purview of the statute only when they have this characteristic of plainly tending to excite the addressee to a breach of the peace.

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Facts. The Petitioner was distributing literature about his religious sect one afternoon on a street corner. Locals complained that the Petitioner was denouncing all religion as a “racket.” Fearing a riot would ensue, a police officer escorted the Petitioner to the local police station. On the way there, the Petitioner encounter the City Marshal and declared that he was a, “God damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist.” The Petitioner was charged with violating state law that made it a crime to offend or annoy another while on a public street.

Issue. Does this law infringe upon Petitioner’s First Amendment constitutional rights?

Held. No. The statute bars words that are likely to cause a breach of the peace. This was narrowly drawn to punish specific conduct within the state power to control.

Discussion. Fighting words include any situation likely to cause a violent response against the speaker and where the insult is likely to inflict immediate emotional harm.

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