Fighting Words Doctrine: Definition, Law & Examples

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  • 0:00 Them's Fightin' Words!
  • 1:05 The Fighting Words Doctrine
  • 2:21 Limiting the Doctrine
  • 3:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. 'Fighting words' receive no constitutional protection. This lesson explains what constitutes fighting words and defines the fighting words doctrine.

Them's Fightin' Words!

Dave gets very angry with his teacher and yells a string of threatening profanities at her. School officials come in, remove Dave, and turn him over to local police. Dave is arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for verbally abusing a school official.

Of course, Dave thinks this is ridiculous and that his charge will be dismissed. Dave thinks he can yell whatever he wants because he is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees free speech. Is Dave right? Is all speech considered to be free speech?

Dave is wrong! Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. Dave's string of profanities will likely be considered 'fighting words.' Fighting words are those that inflict injury or to tend to cause imminent disturbance of the peace by merely being uttered. Unfortunately for Dave, his words stirred up quite a scene. His classmates scrambled out of the classroom and his teacher yelled for help. The quiet classroom quickly turned chaotic - he incited an immediate breach of the peace.

The Fighting Words Doctrine

The U.S. Supreme Court carved out this exception to the First Amendment in 1942. The exception is known as the fighting words doctrine and comes from the case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. Walter Chaplinsky was distributing pamphlets on a street when he got into a verbal altercation with a city marshal. Chaplinsky called the marshal a 'racketeer' and declared he was 'a damned fascist and the whole government of Rochester are fascists or agents of fascists.' Chaplinsky was convicted under a city ordinance prohibiting people in public from calling others an offensive or derisive name.

Like Dave, Chaplinsky felt his speech should be constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, saying '…epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution….'

Notice how the Court narrows the protections provided through the Constitution's free speech clause. Though the clause protects most speech, the Court ruled that the free speech clause only protects speech that has a considerable amount of social value. Generally speaking, if the social value is outweighed by the harm to society, such as breaching the peace, then the speech is not protected by the First Amendment. This means that ultimately, the government can constitutionally make and enforce laws that prohibit fighting words.

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