Gooding v. Wilson,
405 U.S. 518 (1972)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972)

Gooding v. Wilson

No. 70-26

Argued December 8, 1971

Decided March 23, 1972

405 U.S. 518


Georgia statute providing that

"[a]ny person who shall, without provocation, use to or of another, and in his presence . . . opprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peace . . . shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,"

which has not been narrowed by the Georgia courts to apply only to "fighting" words "which by their very utterance . . . tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace," Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568, 315 U. S. 572, is on its face unconstitutionally vague and overbroad under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 405 U. S. 520-528.

431 F.2d 855, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, STEWART, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 405 U. S. 528. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 405 U. S. 534. POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Primary Holding

The First Amendment renders void a statute or an interpretation of a statute that is so broad as to punish protected speech in addition to unprotected speech.


A state criminal statute prohibited individuals from using opprobrious words and abusive language to others in their presence. Gooding was convicted under this law after he said "White son of a b----, I'll kill you," and "You son of a b----, I'll choke you to death."



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall

Only clearly defined and narrowly restricted types of speech may be prohibited by states under the First Amendment. Fighting words do not receive First Amendment protections, but the dictionary meanings of "opprobrious" and "abusive" cover a much broader category of language. They may not always result in a breach of the peace. While the state may regulate unprotected speech to achieve a legitimate interest, it may not trespass upon protected speech in doing so.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger

The language of the statute was not so overly broad that it was constitutionally invalid.


  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)


  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Case Commentary

A law will be struck down under the First Amendment if it so broad that it would criminalize protected speech as well as unprotected speech. Even if the specific conduct that gives rise to the case would not be protected, a conviction under the statute would not stand because the statute would be void on its face. This doctrine applies to a broad range of situations because it is easy to hypothesize about potential (not necessarily probable) interpretations that violate the First Amendment.

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