Fighting words

Fighting words

Fighting words are written or spoken words, generally expressed to incite hatred or violence and to place the targets of the words in danger of harm. Specific definitions, freedoms, and limitations of fighting words vary by jurisdiction. It is also used in a general sense of words which when uttered create (deliberately or not) a verbal or even physical confrontation by their mere usage.


In Canada, freedom of speech is generally protected under Section 2 of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Criminal Code of Canada, however, limits these freedoms and provides for several forms of punishable hate speech. The form of punishable hate speech considered to encompass "fighting words" is identified in Section 319: [ [ Stephen Brooks, "Hate Speech and the Rights Cultures of Canada and the United States"] ]

United States

The fighting words doctrine, in United States constitutional law, is a limitation to freedom of speech as granted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In its 9-0 decision, "Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire" (1942), the U.S. Supreme Court established the doctrine and held that "insulting or 'fighting words,' those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" are among the "well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [which] the prevention and punishment of...have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem."

"Chaplinsky" decision

Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness, had purportedly told a New Hampshire town marshal who was attempting to prevent him from preaching "You are a God-damned racketeer" and "a damned fascist" and was arrested. The court upheld the arrest and wrote in its decision that


The court has continued to uphold the doctrine but also steadily narrowed the grounds on which fighting words are held to apply. In "Street v. New York" (1969) [] , the court overturned a statute prohibiting flag-burning and verbally abusing the flag, holding that mere "offensiveness" does not qualify as "fighting words". Similarly, in "Cohen v. California" (1971), the fact that Cohen had been arrested for wearing a jacket that said "fuck the draft" did not constitute uttering fighting words since there had been no "personally abusive epithets."

In "R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul" (1992), the court overturned a statute prohibiting cross-burning on the grounds that the specific statute was overbroad; ie., that it risked proscribing lawful conduct. The Court, however, made it repeatedly clear that the City could have pursued "any number" of other avenues, and reaffirmed the notion that "fighting words" could be properly regulated by municipal or state governments.


External links

* [ What is the Fighting Words doctrine?] from
* [ First Amendment Library entry on Fighting Words]

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