Opinions & Commentaries

Walter Chaplinsky, a Jehovah’s Witness, stood on a street corner in Rochester, NH distributing materials and denouncing all religions as a “racket.” After people complained to the city marshal about Chaplinsky’s actions, the officer informed the crowd that he was allowed to be on the corner. As the crowd grew more restless, the marshal warned Chaplinsky of a riot, to which he replied “You are a God damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist and the whole government of Rochester are Fascists or agents of Fascists.” Chaplinsky was arrested and convicted under a state statute, making it unlawful to “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.”

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Paul Robert Cohen was convicted of violating California Penal Code § 415, which criminalizes "maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person . . . by . . . offensive conduct," for wearing a jacket with the phrase "Fuck the Draft" printed on the back. Cohen wore the jacket in the Los Angeles County Courthouse, and argued that his display of the expletive was there to communicate the sincerity and depth of his feelings regarding the draft and the Vietnam War. Women and children were present in the hallway of the courthouse where Cohen was arrested, and their presence was used as justification for his arrest. Cohen argued that his conviction violated his First Amendment rights through the Fourteenth Amendment's incorporation of those rights against the states. His argument was unsuccessful in front of the state court of appeals, which upheld his conviction. The State of California had argued that wearing the jacket constituted conduct, not speech, and therefore the conviction was justified and did not violate the First Amendment. The Supreme Court of the United States disagreed, holding that wearing the jacket was, in fact, speech. Further, although expletives can be used as "fighting words," they must be directed at the listener, and Cohen's jacket was not. Potentially offended parties had the choice of looking away. Accordingly, California's statute as applied violated Cohen's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and the decision of the California Court of Appeals was reversed.

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Appellee challenged a Georgia statute providing that "[a]ny person who shall, without provocation, use to or of another, and in his presence . . . opprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peace . . . shall be guilty of a misdemeanor," and had not been narrowed by the Georgia courts to apply only to "fighting" words "which by their very utterance . . . tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace," was on its face unconstitutionally vague and overbroad under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

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Upon the Louisiana Supreme Court's reconsideration of this case in light of Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U. S. 518 (1972), pursuant to our remand, 408 U. S. 913 (1972), that court, three judges dissenting, again sustained appellant's conviction upon a charge of addressing spoken words to a New Orleans police officer in violation of New Orleans Ordinance 828 M. C. S. § 49-7, 263 La. 809, 269 So. 2d 450 (1972).[1] We noted probable jurisdiction, 412 U. S. 926 (1973), and we reverse. We hold that § 49-7, as construed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, is overbroad in violation of the First and Fourteenth *132 Amendments and is therefore facially invalid. Section 49-7 provides:

"It shall be unlawful and a breach of the peace for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to any member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty."
The Louisiana Supreme Court on remand did not refine or narrow these words, but took them as they stood: "The proscriptions are narrow and specific— wantonly cursing, reviling, and using obscene or opprobrious language." 263 La., at 827, 269 So. 2d, at 456. Nonetheless, that court took the position that, as written, "it [§ 49-7] is narrowed to `fighting words' uttered to specific persons at a specific time . . . ." Id., at 826, 269 So. 2d, at 456. But § 49-7 plainly has a broader sweep than the constitutional definition of "fighting words" announced in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568, 572 (1942), and reaffirmed in Gooding v. Wilson, supra, at 522, namely, "those [words] which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." That the Louisiana Supreme Court contemplated a broader reach of the ordinance is evident from its emphasis upon the city's justification for regulation of "the conduct of any person towards a member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty . . . . Permitting the cursing or reviling of or using obscene or opprobrious words to a police officer while in the actual performance of his duty would be unreasonable and basically incompatible with the officer's activities and the place where such activities are performed." 263 La., at 825, 269 So. 2d, at 456.[2]*133 At the least, the proscription of the use of "opprobrious language," embraces words that do not "by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." That was our conclusion as to the word "opprobrious" in the Georgia statute held unconstitutional in Gooding v. Wilson, where we found that the common dictionary definition of that term embraced words "conveying or intended to convey disgrace" and therefore that the term was not limited to words which "by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." 405 U. S., at 525. The same conclusion is compelled as to the reach of the term in § 49-7, for we find nothing in the opinion of the Louisiana Supreme Court that makes any meaningful attempt to limit or properly define—as limited by Chaplinsky and Gooding—"opprobrious," or indeed any other term in § 49-7. In that circumstance it is immaterial whether the words appellant used might be punishable under a properly limited statute or ordinance. We reaffirm our holding in Gooding v. Wilson, supra, at 520-521, in this respect:
"It matters not that the words [appellant] used might have been constitutionally prohibited under a narrowly and precisely drawn statute. At least when statutes regulate or proscribe speech and when `no readily apparent construction suggests itself as a vehicle for rehabilitating the statutes in a single prosecution,' . . . the transcendent value to all society of constitutionally protected expression is deemed to justify allowing `attacks on overly broad statutes with no requirement that the person making *134 the attack demonstrate that his own conduct could not be regulated by a statute drawn with the requisite narrow specificity' . . . . This is deemed necessary because persons whose expression is constitutionally protected may well refrain from exercising their rights for fear of criminal sanctions provided by a statute susceptible of application to protected expression."
In sum, § 49-7 punishes only spoken words. It can therefore withstand appellant's attack upon its facial constitutionality only if, as authoritatively construed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, it is not susceptible of application to speech, although vulgar or offensive, that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15, 18-22 (1971); Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U. S. 1, 4-5 (1949); Gooding v. Wilson, supra, at 520. Since § 49-7, as construed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, is susceptible of application to protected speech, the section is constitutionally overbroad and therefore is facially invalid.

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438 U.S. 726 (1978) FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION v. PACIFICA FOUNDATION ET AL.     No. 77-528. Supreme Court of United States.    Argued April 18, 19, 1978. Decided July 3, 1978. CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.*728 Joseph A. Marino argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Robert R. Bruce and Daniel M. Armstrong.Harry M. Plotkin argued the cause for respondent Pacifica Foundation. With him on the brief were David Tillotson and Harry F. Cole. Louis F. Claiborne argued the cause for *729 the United States, a respondent […]

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