Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire
315 U.S. 568 (1942)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

No. 255

Argued February 5, 1942

Decided March 9, 1942

315 U.S. 568

Syllabus

1. That part of c. 378, § 2, of the Public Law of New Hampshire which forbids under penalty that any person shall address "any offensive, derisive or annoying word to any other person who is lawfully in any street or other public place," or "call him by any offensive or derisive name," was construed by the Supreme Court of the State, in this case and before this case arose, as limited to the use in a public place of words directly tending to cause a breach of the peace by provoking the person addressed to acts of violence.

Held:

(1) That, so construed, it is sufficiently definite and specific to comply with requirements of due process of law. P. 315 U. S. 573.

(2) That, as applied to a person who, on a public street, addressed another as a "damned Fascist" and a "damned racketeer," it does not substantially or unreasonably impinge upon freedom of speech. P. 315 U. S. 574.

(3) The refusal of the state court to admit evidence offered by the defendant tending to prove provocation and evidence bearing on the truth or falsity of the utterances charged is open to no constitutional objection. P. 315 U. S. 574.

2. The Court notices judicially that the appellations "damned racketeer" and "damned Fascist" are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace. P. 315 U. S. 574

91 N.H. 310, 18 A.2d 754, affirmed.

APPEAL from a judgment affirming a conviction under a state law denouncing the use of offensive words when addressed by one person to another in a public place.

Page 315 U. S. 569

Primary Holding
The First Amendment does not protect fighting words, which are those that inherently cause harm or are likely to result in an immediate disturbance.
Facts
The facts giving rise to this case have been disputed, but this is the version that was used by the Court in making its decision. On a public sidewalk in downtown Rochester, Walter Chaplinsky was distributing literature that supported his beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness and attacked more conventional forms of religion. The town marshal warned him against causing a disturbance, but Chaplinsky's conduct resulted in an upheaval that blocked the surrounding roads and caused a police officer to remove (although not arrest) him. On his way to the police station, Chaplinsky saw the town marshal again and shouted at him that he was "a God-damned racketeer" and "a damned Fascist." This verbal assault led to his arrest.

When he was questioned about what he had said, Chaplinsky admitted cursing the marshal as a racketeer and a fascist while denying that he had invoked the name of God. He was convicted of violating a state law that prohibited intentionally offensive, derisive, or annoying speech to any person who is lawfully in a street or public area. Appealing his fine, Chaplinsky argued that the law violated the First Amendment on the grounds that it was overly vague.

Opinions

Majority

  • Frank Murphy (Author)
  • Owen Josephus Roberts
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Stanley Forman Reed
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Frank Murphy
  • James Francis Byrnes
  • Robert Houghwout Jackson

Writing for a unanimous Court, Murphy identified certain categorical exceptions to First Amendment protections. These included obscenities, certain profane and slanderous speech, and "fighting words." He found that Chaplinsky's insults fell into the final category, since they caused a direct harm to their target and could be construed to advocate an immediate breach of the peace. Thus, they lacked the social value of disseminating ideas to the public that lay behind the rights granted by the First Amendment. A state can use its police power to curb their expression in the interests of maintaining order and morality.

Case Commentary

Fighting words are one of the rare categorical exceptions to First Amendment protection, since normally content-based restrictions on speech would be invalidated unless the government can meet the strict scrutiny standard, which is rare. What exactly constitutes fighting words is open to debate, although words that are intended to induce an emotional response in the average person and have no basis in fact are likely to fit into this categorical exception.

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