Case summaries

 

 

Case Name: Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)
Argued: Feb. 5, 1942
Date Decided: March 9, 1942
Vote: Unanimous
Facts: Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness, made several statements denouncing organized religion while distributing religious literature on a public street. Several citizens complained to the city marshal that Chaplinsky's message was offensive. The marshal informed the citizens that Chaplinsky was lawfully engaged but warned Chaplinsky that the crowd was getting restless. A disturbance subsequently occurred, and an officer on duty proceeded to escort Chaplinsky, without placing him under arrest, to the police station. En route, they encountered the city marshal, whereupon Chaplinsky proclaimed, "You are a God damned racketeer" and "a damned fascist." For these words, Chaplinsky was convicted of violating a New Hampshire statute prohibiting the use of offensive or annoying words when addressing another person in public. Claiming that the statute placed an unreasonable restraint on free speech, Chaplinsky appealed his conviction.
Issue: The Court noted that freedom of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment from infringement by Congress, is a fundamental personal right and liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by state action (Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 450). However, the Court was faced with the issue of whether the New Hampshire statute, which proscribed certain speech, in fact violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Legal Basis for Decision: The Court noted that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain "well-defined and narrowly limited" classes of speech that can be proscribed and regulated without constitutional problem. These include the "lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or 'fighting words'." The Court defined fighting words as those words that "by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." Fighting words are excluded, the Court reasoned, because any benefit derived from their utterance is outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. The Court determined that the statute was constitutional. Finding that the epithets uttered by Chaplinsky were likely to provoke the average person to retaliation and thereby cause a breach of the peace, the Court ruled that Mr. Chaplinsky's words were unprotectable fighting words.
Quotable: "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."
Writing for the Majority: Justice Murphy
Case Name: Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949)
Argued: Feb. 1, 1949
Date Decided: May 16, 1949
Vote: 5-4
Facts: Terminiello made a public speech, taking aim at certain racial and political groups. A disturbance ensued, requiring police intervention. Terminiello was subsequently convicted of violating an ordinance that provided that "all persons who shall make, aid, countenance or assist in making any improper noise, riot, disturbance, breach of the peace or diversion tending to a breach of the peace" should be deemed guilty of disorderly conduct. The trial court's interpretation of the statute permitted convictions not only for fighting words, but also for speech that "stirred people to anger, invited public dispute or brought about a condition of unrest." The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, finding the statute unconstitutionally overbroad.
Issue: The Court focused on whether the statute under which Terminiello had been convicted was unconstitutionally overbroad. Finding that it was, the Court never reached the issue of whether the content of Terminiello's speech actually constituted fighting words.
Legal Basis for Decision: The ordinance prohibited not only fighting words, but also any words that tended to incite anger or cause unrest. The Court concluded that the ordinance, as construed and applied, contained at least parts that were unconstitutional. Specifically, the Court opined that "a function of free speech under our government is to invite dispute. It may indeed serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are or even stirs people to anger." Since the trial court's decision was general rather than specific, there was no way of knowing whether Terminiello's conviction was based on the constitutional or unconstitutional provisions of the ordinance. As such, the conviction was reversed.
Quotable: "Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above the public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest."
Writing for the Majority: Justice Douglas
Case Name: Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576 (1969)
Argued:

Oct. 21, 1968

Date Decided:

April 21, 1969

Vote:

5-4

Facts:

After learning that civil rights leader James Meredith had been shot, the accused took an American flag to a New York street corner and set the flag on fire. An audience formed, including a police officer, and the accused proceeded to make disparaging remarks about the flag. The accused was convicted of violating a New York statute making it misdemeanor "to publicly mutilate, deface, defile, defy, trample upon, or cast contempt upon an American flag whether by words or act." The conviction was affirmed by the appeals court.

Issue:

Holding that the case was not moot, despite the expiration of the time period during which the accused's suspended sentence could have been replaced by an actual prison sentence, the Court proceeded to address whether or not the accused could constitutionally be punished for his words.

Legal Basis for Decision:

The Court concluded that the accused had a constitutional right to publicly express his feelings and opinions about the American flag, even if defiant or contemptuous. The verdict against Street was a general verdict, however, that the Court determined could have been based on his conduct, his words or both. Because of this, the Court held that even if the record "precludes the inference that Mr. Street's conviction might have been solely based on his words, we are still bound to reverse if the conviction could have been based both upon his words and his act." Such a ruling was dictated, the Court reasoned, to prevent the punishment of constitutionally protected speech.

Quotable:

"We cannot say that appellant's remarks were so inherently inflammatory as to come within that small class of 'fighting words' which are 'likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace.'"

Writing for the Majority:

Justice Harlan

Case Name: Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)
Argued:

Feb. 22, 1971

Date Decided:

June 7, 1971

Vote:

5-4

Facts:

Cohen was arrested and convicted for disturbing the peace in violation of California Penal Code 415, after wearing a jacket that bore the words "F--- the Draft" in a county courthouse. Specifically, the state argued that the four-letter expletive imprinted on the appellant's jacket was "offensive conduct" that might provoke others to violence against the appellant. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and reversed the conviction.

Issue:

Whether Cohen's expression constituted constitutionally protected speech, or fell within the unprotected fighting-words exception.

Legal Basis for Decision:

The Court recognized that "States are free to ban the simple use, without a demonstration of additional justifying circumstances, of so called 'fighting words," those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction." Despite this broad grant of discretion, the Court nonetheless held that Cohen's expression did not amount to fighting words. The Court reasoned that the epithet in question was not directed to the "person of the hearer" and that "no individual actually or likely to be present could reasonably have regarded the words on appellant's jacket as a direct personal insult."

Quotable:

"States are free to ban the simple use, without a demonstration of additional justifying circumstances, of so called 'fighting words," those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction."

Writing for the Majority:

Justice Harlan

Case Name: Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972)
Argued:

Dec. 8, 1971

Date Decided:

March 23, 1972

Vote:

5-4

Facts:

The defendant was engaged in a protest against the Vietnam War. When police officers attempted to intervene in the protest, the defendant made threatening and insulting remarks to the officers. Subsequently, he was convicted of violating a Georgia Statute making it a misdemeanor for any person , without provocation, to use to or of another, and in his presence, "opprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peace."

Issue:

Whether the Georgia statute, under which the Defendant was convicted, is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Legal Basis for Decision:

The Court held the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad, finding the dictionary definitions of the adjectives "opprobrious" and "abusive" to reach beyond mere fighting words. In reaching its conclusion, the majority reaffirmed the notion that words may not be banned simply because of their offensive or vulgar nature.

Quotable:

"Because the line between speech unconditionally guaranteed and speech which may legitimately be regulated, suppressed or punished is finely drawn, in every case, the power to regulate must be so exercised as not to, in attaining a permissible end, unduly infringe the protected freedom." Quoting I 310 U.S. 296, 304 (1940).

Writing for the Majority:

Justice Brennan

Case Name: Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974)
Argued:

Dec. 10, 1973

Date Decided:

Feb. 20, 1974

Vote:

5-4

Facts:

On a prior remand, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a statute making it unlawful and a breach of the peace "for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to" any city police officer serving in the line of duty, maintaining that it only prohibited fighting words. On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed.

Issue:

Whether the Louisiana statute is overbroad in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment.

Legal Basis for Decision:

In light of Gooding v. Wilson, the Court concluded that the state court had not narrowly defined the words of the ordinance to limit its application to fighting words only. Moreover, the Court held that it was immaterial that the defendant's language in the case at bar might have been constitutionally punishable under a properly limited statute.

Quotable:

"It matters not that words appellant used might have been constitutionally prohibited under a narrowly and precisely drawn statute. At least when statutes regulate or proscribe speech and when no readily apparent construction suggests itself as a vehicle for rehabilitating the statutes in a single prosecution, the transcendent value to all society of constitutionally protected expression is deemed to justify allowing attacks on overly broad statutes with no requirement that the person making the attack demonstrate that his own conduct could not be regulated by a statute drawn with the requisite narrow specificity."

Writing for the Majority:

Justice Brennan

Case Name: R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992)
Argued:

Dec. 4, 1991

Date Decided:

June 22, 1992

Vote:

5-4

Facts:

The petitioner was charged with violating the St. Paul Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, after burning a cross in the yard of an African-American family. The petitioner moved to dismiss the charge, arguing that the ordinance is overbroad and impermissibly content-based. The trial court granted the motion, but was reversed by the appellate court.

Issue:

Whether the St. Paul Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance is overbroad and impermissibly content-based in violation of the First Amendment.

Legal Basis for Decision:

The Court reversed the lower-court decision, concluding that even if the expression reached by the ordinance could be prohibited under the fighting-words doctrine, the ordinance was facially unconstitutional because it prohibited otherwise permitted speech based on the content it addressed. The Court reasoned that "just as the power to proscribe particular speech on the basis of a non-content element (e.g. noise) does not entail the power to proscribe the same speech on the basis of a content element; so also, the power to proscribe it on the basis of one content element (e.g., obscenity) does not entail the power to proscribe on the basis of other content elements."

Quotable:

"It is not true that "fighting words" have at most a "di minimus" expressive content, or that their content is in all respects "worthless and undeserving of constitutional protection"; sometimes they are quite expressive indeed. We have not said that they constitute "no part of the expression of ideas," but only that they constitute "no essential part of any expression of ideas."

Writing for the Majority:

Justice Scalia