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Free speech is not without restrictions. There are many, many things you can say that are not constitutionally protected.
“Fighting words” are prohibited and can result in criminal prosecution.
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Frank Murphy upheld Chaplinksy’s conviction. The Court identified certain categorical exceptions to First Amendment protections, including obscenities, certain profane and slanderous speech, and “fighting words.” He found that Chaplinsky’s insults were “fighting words” since they caused a direct harm to their target and could be construed to advocate an immediate breach of the peace. Thus, they lacked the social value of disseminating ideas to the public that lay behind the rights granted by the First Amendment. A state can use its police power, the Court reasoned, to curb their expression in the interests of maintaining order and morality.
The complaint charged that appellant,
“with force and arms, in a certain public place in said city of Rochester, to-wit, on the public sidewalk on the easterly side of Wakefield Street, near unto the entrance of the City Hall, did unlawfully repeat the words following, addressed to the complainant, that is to say, ‘You are a God damned racketeer’ and ‘a damned Fascist and the whole government of Rochester are Fascists or agents of Fascists,’ the same being offensive, derisive and annoying words and names.”
Upon appeal, there was a trial de novo of appellant before a jury in the Superior Court. He was found guilty, and the judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State. 91 N.H. 310, 18 A.2d 754.
Allowing the broadest scope to the language and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances.
Nor can we say that the application of the statute to the facts disclosed by the record substantially or unreasonably impinges upon the privilege of free speech. Argument is unnecessary to demonstrate that the appellations “damned racketeer” and “damned Fascist” are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace.
The refusal of the state court to admit evidence of provocation and evidence bearing on the truth or falsity of the utterances is open to no Constitutional objection. Whether the facts sought to be proved by such evidence constitute a defense to the charge, or may be shown in mitigation, are questions for the state court to determine. Our function is fulfilled by a determination that the challenged statute, on its face and as applied, doe not contravene the Fourteenth Amendment.
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