Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire is a famous U.S. Supreme Court case that established the fighting words doctrine. Fighting words and certain other forms of speech are not protected by the First Amendment. This lesson examines the Chaplinsky decision.

The Street Corner

Have you heard the phrase 'Those are fighting words'? It's used when someone has crossed the line in an argument or unduly challenged the other party. Did you know there really is such a thing as 'fighting words'? The United States Supreme Court has recognized this special category of speech since the 1940s. Let's take a look at what 'fighting words' are and how they came about.

One Saturday afternoon, Mr. Chaplinsky stood on a busy Rochester street corner and distributed Jehovah's Witness literature. People on the street were bothered, and especially angered when Chaplinsky called religion a 'racket'. A crowd gathered on the public sidewalk and a riot ensued. As a police officer was escorting Chaplinsky away from the scene, they encountered a city marshal. While still on the street, Chaplinsky called the city marshal a 'damned racketeer' and a 'damned fascist'.

Chaplinsky was then arrested for breach of peace. The New Hampshire law made it illegal to call another person an 'offensive' or 'derisive' word while in a public place. Chaplinsky was charged and convicted.

The Appeal

On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, Chaplinsky argued that the New Hampshire law violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from infringing on citizens' fundamental freedoms, which are guaranteed through the Constitution. Chaplinsky said that New Hampshire tried to keep him from exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech, free press and free worship.

The Supreme Court decided it was only necessary to address Chaplinsky's claim regarding his right to free speech. The Court was left to decide 'Can New Hampshire constitutionally prohibit the use of offensive name-calling in public?' Or, 'Does the New Hampshire law unconstitutionally hamper Chaplinsky's First Amendment rights?'

The Decision

Perhaps surprisingly, the Court reached a unanimous decision in favor of New Hampshire. In its 1942 opinion, they decided New Hampshire's law was constitutional and Chaplinsky's conviction for using offensive names in public could stand.

Normally, states are not allowed to inhibit the expression of ideas because that violates the First Amendment. However, the Court noted that Chaplinsky was not convicted for expressing ideas. His words to the city marshal were fighting words, meaning they 'inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace'.

In other words, the First Amendment simply does not protect certain forms of speech. This is known as the fighting words doctrine. Using this doctrine, the Court denies protection for abusive speech, exchanged face to face, that is likely to provoke an aggressive response. However, speech that is offensive, vulgar, critical or profane - without being exchanged in person and likely to incite violence - is still protected.

For example, in Cohen v. California the Court ruled that the words 'F*** the Draft' were not fighting words. Cohen wore the words printed largely on the back of a jacket, into a courthouse, but the words were not addressed to any one person.

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