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Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

    Citation. 315 U.S. 568, 62 S. Ct. 766, 86 L. Ed. 1031, 1942 U.S. 851.

    Brief Fact Summary. Chaplinsky was convicted under a State statute for calling a City Marshal a “God damned racketeer” and a “damned fascist” in a public place.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “Fighting words” are not entitled to protection under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution)


    Facts. A New Hampshire statute prohibited any person from addressing any offensive, derisive or annoying word to any other person who is on any street or public place or calling him by any derisive name. Chaplinsky, a Jehovah’s Witness, called a City Marshal a “God damned racketeer” and a “damned fascist” in a public place and was therefore arrested and convicted under the statute.

    Issue. Did the statute or the application of the statute to Chaplinsky’s comments violate his free speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution?

    Held. No. The lower court is affirmed.
    Considering the purpose of the First Amendment of the Constitution, it is obvious that the right to free speech is not absolute under all circumstances. There are some narrowly defined classes of speech that have never been protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. These include “fighting words,” words that inflict injury or tend to excite an immediate breach of the peace. Such words are of such little expositional or social value that any benefit they might produce is far outweighed by their costs on social interests in order and morality.
    The statute at issue is narrowly drawn to define and punish specific conduct lying within the domain of government power. Moreover, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which is the ultimate arbiter of the meanings of New Hampshire law, has defined the Statute as applying only to “fighting words”. Therefore, the Statute does not unconstitutionally impinge upon the right of free speech.

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    Discussion. By holding that “fighting words” are not protected forms of speech the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) announced a rare form of content based restriction on speech that is permissible. The student should consider what characteristics distinguish a “fight word” from a bona fide criticism. One difference may lie in the speaker’s intent. “Fighting words” are intended to inflict harm, bona-fide criticisms are intended to communicate ideas. Another difference may lie in the differing likely effects of each: “fighting words” are likely to provoke the average person to violence while bona fide criticisms are not.

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