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What is the definition of fighting words?

The U.S. Supreme Court in its leading case on the subject, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, defined fighting words as those words “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” The court later used the terms “epithets” and “personal abuse” in discussing fighting words.

Does this mean that all profanity constitutes fighting words?

No, it doesn’t — at least for many courts. For example, in a later decision, Cohen v. California, the Supreme Court determined that the words on a jacket “Fuck the Draft” worn in a courthouse did not constitute fighting words. Other courts have determined that curse words did not constitute fighting words when they were not accompanied by threatening behavior or other similar conduct. Some courts, however, have determined that curse words are fighting words. Basically, the lower courts are not uniform on this issue.

Why is the subject of fighting words so important?

It is important because fighting words is a category of unprotected speech in First Amendment jurisprudence. The issue often arises when an individual is charged with violating a disorderly conduct or breach-of-the-peace statute or ordinance. The individual may argue that the statute is too broad and applies to critical, offensive speech that should retain First Amendment protection. Many state supreme courts have upheld such statutes by interpreting them to apply only to fighting words. This is what is known in legal terms as a limiting construction.

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