Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

Following is the case brief for Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, Supreme Court of the United States, (1942)

Case summary for Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire:

  • Chaplinsky was convicted under s New Hampshire statute for speaking words which prohibited offensive, derisive and annoying words to a person lawfully on a street corner.
  • He later challenged his conviction, claiming the statute violated his First Amendment rights under the Constitution.
  • The state supreme court affirmed the lower court’s conviction and Chaplinsky appealed to the Supreme Court of the U.S.
  • The Court held that the statute was not unconstitutional and that Chaplinsky’s words constituted “fighting words” which are categorized as unprotected speech for First Amendment free speech purposes.

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Defendant Chaplinsky was a Jehovah’s Witness who distributed his religion’s beliefs through pamphlets on street corners. Other citizen claimed that Chaplinsky was denouncing other religions. City Marshal Bowering received multiple complaints regarding Chaplinsky’s speech, Bowering responded by informing several citizens that Chaplinsky was lawfully allowed to voice his beliefs. Bowering also warned Chaplinsky about the complaining crowd and their growing agitation. Shortly after, a public disturbance arose and Chaplinsky was brought to the police station. En route, Chaplinsky called Bowering a “facist” and a “racketeer.”  After admitting to the utterance of the words in question, Chaplinsky was convicted under a New Hampshire statute which read:

“No person shall address any offensive, derisive or annoying word to any other person who is lawfully in any street or other public place, nor call him by any offensive or derisive name, nor make any noise or exclamation in his presence and hearing with intent to deride, offend or annoy him, or to prevent him from pursuing his lawful business or occupation.”

Procedural History:

Chaplinsky appealed to the state supreme court, who affirmed the lower court’s decision. In response, Chaplinsky appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The First Amendment right to free speech does not protect fighting words which incite others to violence.

Issue and Holding:

Is a state law prohibiting annoying, derisive or offensive speech on public streets unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment? No.

Judgment:

The Court affirmed the state supreme court’s judgment.

Reasoning:

The Court held that the freedom of speech protected under the First Amendment cannot be absolute.

It is permissible to construct certain narrow categories of speech that do not receive protection. This category of unprotected speech includes lewd, obscene, profane, libelous speech, insulting speech and “fighting words.” The Court defined fighting words as words that by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. The Court held that this form of speech has limited social value. It also fails to provide input to the “market place of ideas” which the First Amendment sets out to protect.

Here, the speech directed at Bowering fell into the fighting words category of speech and as a result, the state statute is not unconstitutional.

Significance:

This is the landmark case which outlines the unprotected status of words which constitute “fighting words.”

Student Resources:

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/315/568
https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/315/568/case.html

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