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Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

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Significance: The Supreme Court upheld a man's conviction for derisive speech of name calling in public, reasoning that “fighting words” were not subject to First Amendment protection.


Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Frank Murphy upheld a state statute under which the defendant was convicted for calling a city marshal a “racketeer” and “fascist” and referring to other officials as “agents of fascists.” The relevant state law prohibited derisive speech or name calling in public. Murphy created a two-tier theory of free speech protection in which certain “well- defined and narrowly limited” types of speech do not have First Amendment protection. “Fighting words” as well as lewd, profane, obscene, and libelous words fell outside the boundaries of constitutional protection because they did not represent a free speech value such as the search for truth. Although Chaplinsky was never overturned and the two-tier theory remains valid regarding business advertising, public swearing, and pornography, the thrust of this decision was considerably narrowed. Libelous publications are judged by the standards set in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), and verbal challenges to police officers enjoy constitutional protection, so Chaplinsky is only a shell of its former self.