Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 US 568 (1942)
Issue: Does the implement of the state statute which prohibits derisive or derogatory speech in a public place violate the appellant’s first amendment rights?
The Court has said speech is not “unlimited”. There are areas of speech that are not protected like obscenity, profanity, libel, and fighting words. The Court defines fighting words as ones that “inflict injury or tend to incite immediate breach of peace”.
2. The Court held that speech falling under the banner of fighting words has limited value, meaning it does not contribute to the so called “market place of ideas”, or help one in the formulation of the truth. These two concepts are the very notions that the first amendment is aimed at protecting and since fighting words do not contribute to either sentiments they are unprotected speech.
3. The words and phrases uttered by the appellate were deemed likely to provoke a reasonable person or to incite violent actions thereby causing a potential “breach in the peace”. This constitutes the appellate’s words as fighting words.
4. The New Hampshire state statute was found not to be inordinately limiting due to the clear explanation of what is prosecutable under the statute. The statute clearly outlined that words with a tendency to incite outward aggressive actions are violations of the law.
Decision: In a unanimous decision, delivered by Justice Murphy, the Court found that the state statute was not unreasonable and did not infringe on the appellant’s first amendment rights.
When reading this case looking at the historical background is imperative. In today’s world if someone were to call another person a “facist”, while the comment could be construed as offensive, it would not be likely to lead to a disturbance of the peace. I believe that for the time period in which this case was decided, the ruling is justified. This was during a period of time in which calling someone a “facist” would have invoked a violent and defensive response in most individuals. The Court’s reasonings are all justified, however I do not agree with the sentiment that any speech not contributing to the exchanging of ideas and information is meaningless. The Court affirmed that fighting words do not add anything to the “market place of ideas”, so it is not protected. The rational that fighting words contribute nothing to the free flow of ideas and innovations is accurate. However, the notion that any kind of speech not contributing to the exchange of ideas is worthless is a dangerous one. Speech’s other purpose is expression. Just because a statement does not advance society does not mean it is worthless. Fighting words are expression, but expression that can result in a violent or dangerous situation therefor do not warrant protection. Speech that is expression for the sake of expression with no “social value” is still valuable.