Fighting Words and Other Threats to the Peace

Fighting Words and Other Threats to the Peace.—In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire,971 the Court unanimously sustained a conviction under a statute proscribing “any offensive, derisive, or annoying word” addressed to any person in a public place under the state court’s interpretation of the statute as being limited to “fighting words”— i.e., to “words . . . [that] have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.” The statute was sustained as “narrowly drawn and limited to define and punish specific conduct lying within the domain of state power, the use in a public place of words likely to cause a breach of the peace.”972 The case is best known for Justice Murphy’s famous dictum. “[I]t is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words—those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”973

Chaplinsky still remains viable for the principle that “the States are free to ban the simple use, without a demonstration of additional justifying circumstances, of so-called ‘fighting words,’ those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.”974 But, in actuality, the Court has closely scrutinized statutes on vagueness and overbreadth grounds and set aside convictions as not being within the doctrine. Chaplinsky thus remains formally alive but of little vitality.975

971 315 U.S. 568 (1942).

972 315 U.S. at 573.

973 315 U.S. at 571-72.

974 Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 20 (1971). Cohen’s conviction for breach of the peace, occasioned by his appearance in public with an “offensive expletive” lettered on his jacket, was reversed, in part because the words were not a personal insult and there was no evidence of audience objection.

975 The cases hold that government may not punish profane, vulgar, or opprobrious words simply because they are offensive, but only if they are “fighting words” that do have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person to whom they are directed. Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972); Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105 (1973); Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974); Lucas v. Arkansas, 416 U.S. 919 (1974); Kelly v. Ohio, 416 U.S. 923 (1974); Karlan v. City of Cincinnati, 416 U.S. 924 (1974); Rosen v. California, 416 U.S. 924 (1974); and see Eaton v. City of Tulsa, 416 U.S. 697 (1974).

On the obverse side, the “hostile audience” situation, the Court once sustained a conviction for disorderly conduct of one who refused police demands to cease speaking after his speech seemingly stirred numbers of his listeners to mutterings and threatened disorders.976 But this case has been significantly limited by cases that hold protected the peaceful expression of views that stirs people to anger because of the content of the expression, or perhaps because of the manner in which it is conveyed, and that breach of the peace and disorderly conduct statutes may not be used to curb such expression.

The cases are not clear to what extent the police must go in protecting the speaker against hostile audience reaction or whether only actual disorder or a clear and present danger of disorder will entitle the authorities to terminate the speech or other expressive conduct.977 Neither, in the absence of incitement to illegal action, may government punish mere expression or proscribe ideas,978 regardless of the trifling or annoying caliber of the expression.979

976 Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315 (1951). See also Milk Wagon Drivers v. Meadowmoor Dairies, 312 U.S. 287 (1941), in which the Court held that a court could enjoin peaceful picketing because violence occurring at the same time against the businesses picketed could have created an atmosphere in which even peaceful, otherwise protected picketing could be illegally coercive. But compare NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886 (1982).

977 The principle actually predates Feiner. See Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940); Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949). For subsequent application, see Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963); Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965); Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131 (1966); Gregory v. City of Chicago, 394 U.S. 111 (1969); Bachellar v. Maryland, 397 U.S. 564 (1970). Significant is Justice Harlan’s statement of the principle reflected by Feiner. “Nor do we have here an instance of the exercise of the State’s police power to prevent a speaker from intentionally provoking a given group to hostile reaction. Cf. Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315 (1951).” Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 20 (1971).

978 Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971); Bachellar v. Maryland, 397 U.S. 564 (1970); Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576 (1969); Schacht v. United States, 398 U.S. 58 (1970); Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952); Kingsley Pictures Corp. v. Regents, 360 U.S. 684 (1959); Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931).

979 Coates v. City of Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611 (1971); Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971); Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972).

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