Facts of the case
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 racketeerand 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.
Why is the case important?
Chaplinsky was convicted under a State statute for calling a City Marshal a “God damned racketeer” and a “damned fascist” in a public place.
Did the statute or the application of the statute to Chaplinsky’s comments violate his free speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution?
No. The lower court is affirmed.
Considering the purpose of the First Amendment of the Constitution, it is obvious that the right to free speech is not absolute under all circumstances. There are some narrowly defined classes of speech that have never been protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. These include “fighting words,” words that inflict injury or tend to excite an immediate breach of the peace. Such words are of such little expositional or social value that any benefit they might produce is far outweighed by their costs on social interests in order and morality.
The statute at issue is narrowly drawn to define and punish specific conduct lying within the domain of government power. Moreover, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which is the ultimate arbiter of the meanings of New Hampshire law, has defined the Statute as applying only to “fighting words”. Therefore, the Statute does not unconstitutionally impinge upon the right of free speech.
The court noted that there were certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which had never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem, such as fightingwords. The challenged statute, on its face and as applied, did not contravene the Fourteenth Amendment , as it did no more than prohibit the face-to-face words plainly likely to cause a breach of the peace by the addressee. The lower court declared that the statute’s purpose was to preserve public peace, and in appellant’s case, the forbidden words were those that had a direct tendency to cause acts of violence. Furthermore, the word offensivewas not defined in terms of what a particular addressee thought, it was defined as what reasonable men of common intelligence understood as words likely to cause an average addressee to fight. The court held that the statute was narrowly drawn and limited to define and punish specific conduct lying within the domain of the state power.
- Advocates: Hayden C. Covington for the appellant Frank R. Kenison for the appellee
- Appellant: Walter Chaplinsky
- Appellee: New Hampshire
- DECIDED BY:Stone Court
- Location: East side of Wakefield Street
|Citation:||315 US 568 (1942)|
|Argued:||Feb 5, 1942|
|Decided:||Mar 9, 1942|