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Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued February 5, 1942
Decided March 9, 1942
Full case name Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire
Citations 315 U.S. 568 (more)
62 S. Ct. 766; 86 L. Ed. 1031; 1942 U.S. LEXIS 851
Prior history Appeal from the New Hampshire Supreme Court
A criminal conviction for causing a breach of the peace through the use of "fighting words" does not violate the Free Speech guarantee of the First Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Murphy, joined by unanimous court
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I; NH P. L., c. 378, § 2 (1941)

Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942) was a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, in which the Court articulated the fighting words doctrine, a limitation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.


Facts of the case

In late November 1941, Walter Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness, was using the public sidewalk as a pulpit in downtown Rochester, passing out pamphlets and calling organized religion a "racket." After a large crowd had begun blocking the roads and generally causing a scene, a police officer removed Chaplinsky to take him to police headquarters. Along the way he met the town marshal, who had earlier warned Chaplinsky to keep it down and avoid causing a commotion. Upon meeting the marshal for the second time, Chaplinsky attacked him verbally. The complaint against Chaplinsky charged that he had shouted: "You are a God-damned racketeer" and "a damned Fascist" and was arrested. Chaplinsky admitted that he said the words charged in the complaint, with the exception of the name of the Deity.

For this, he was arrested under a New Hampshire statute preventing intentionally offensive speech being directed at others in a public place. Under NH.'s Offensive Conduct law (chap. 378, para. 2 of the NH. Public Laws) it is illegal for anyone to address another person with "any offensive, derisive or annoying word to anyone who is lawfully in any street or public place...or to call him by an offensive or derisive name."

Chaplinsky was fined, but he appealed, claiming the law was "vague" and infringed upon his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech.

Decision of the Court

The Court, in a unanimous decision, upheld the arrest. Writing the decision for the Court, Justice Frank Murphy advanced a “two-tier theory” of the First Amendment. Certain “well‐defined and narrowly limited” categories of speech fall outside the bounds of constitutional protection. Thus, “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous,” and (in this case) insulting or “fighting” words neither contributed to the expression of ideas nor possessed any “social value” in the search for truth.[1]

Murphy wrote:

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 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. It has been well observed that such 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.


This two‐tier approach retains importance for those who believe that carefully crafted controls over certain categories of speech (such as pornography, commercial advertising, or abusive epithets) do not violate First Amendment guarantees. Although the Court continues to cite Chaplinsky's position on “fighting words” approvingly, subsequent cases have largely eroded its initial, broad formulation; libelous publications and even verbal challenges to police officers have come to enjoy some constitutional protection. Chaplinsky remains the last case in which the Court explicitly upheld a conviction only for “fighting words” directed at public officials.

See also


  1. ^ See Sullivan, Harold J. (2005). Civil Rights and Liberties: Provocative Questions and Evolving Answers. 2nd ed. N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2005 at 24. Banning the "N word" slur for African-Americans: A good intention butts against free speech.

Further reading

  • Herbeck, Dale (2003). "Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire". in Parker, Richard A. (ed.). Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. pp. 85–99. ISBN 081731301X. 

External links

  • Text of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942) is available from:  · Enfacto · Findlaw


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