Nahmod Law

Freedom of Speech (6): Fighting Words

This post answers three questions.

1. What are fighting words?

2. Are fighting words protected by the First Amendment?

3. If not, why not?

What are fighting words?

It is fair to say that the category of fighting words has been significantly limited in the years since Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), the seminal fighting words case discussed below. As I read the subsequent cases, fighting words are in-your-face insults that can be based on race, ethnic origin, religion or sex but don’t necessarily have to be. For example, going right up to someone and yelling a profane insult about that person’s mother may constitute fighting words. But carrying a banner across the street from that person with the same message does not constitute fighting words that can be punished.

Fighting words are not protected by the First Amendment

The Supreme Court explained it this way in Chaplinsky:

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and the obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words–those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. … [S]uch utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

Why are fighting words not protected?

The Court’s answer in Chaplinsky is several-fold.

First, there is an historical basis, according to the Court, namely, that it has never been thought otherwise. But this is not entirely satisfactory because the Court also lists the lewd and the profane, both of which (so long as not obscene) are now protected by the First Amendment. In addition, the Court lists the libelous, but this category has now been significantly limited by New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), which constitutionalized defamation as it affects not only public officials and public figures but also private persons where the speech is on an issue of public concern.

Second, the Court suggests that fighting words tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, a justification reminiscent of the clear and present danger test of Holmes and Brandeis. But this too is not a satisfactory explanation: where fighting words are present, there is no inquiry into whether in fact there is a clear and present danger. Perhaps the answer is that one’s violent reaction to fighting words is immediate and instinctive; there is no time for counterspeech. [Note, though, that one who responds violently to fighting words is not immune from criminal punishment for his conduct]

Third, the Court engages in what has been called categorical balancing. Namely, it balances the free speech interest in, say, fighting words, against the social interest in order and morality, and finds that as a general matter, the latter trumps the free speech interest. Interestingly, the Court thereby engages in content discrimination which is otherwise not permitted to governments acting in a regulatory role. Moreover, categorical balancing appears inconsistent with the marketplace of ideas rationale.

The exclusion of fighting words and the other categories from First Amendment protection (or coverage) reflects what has been called the “two-tier theory” of the First Amendment, a theory that is based on the content of speech.

 

(For much more on the First Amendment search “free speech” on this blog)

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Written by snahmod

September 11, 2017 at 1:31 pm

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