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. Chaplinsky called the town marshal “a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist.” He was arrested and convicted under a state law that prohibited intentionally offensive, derisive, or annoying speech to any person who is lawfully in a street or public area. On appeal, Chaplinsky argued that the law violated the First Amendment on the grounds that it was overly vague.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Frank Murphy upheld Chaplinsky’s conviction. The Court identified certain categorical exceptions to First Amendment protections, including obscenities, certain profane and slanderous speech, and “fighting words.” He found that Chaplinsky’s insults were “fighting words” 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, the Court reasoned, to curb their expression in the interests of maintaining order and morality.
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Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/315us568