Legal Principle at Issue
Does the New Hampshire statute violate Chaplinsky's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights?
Affirmed (includes modified). Petitioning party did not receive a favorable disposition.
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.”
Importance of Case
Chaplinsky's words constitute "fighting words." Court announces "two-tier" theory of the First Amendment, saying not all categories of speech are protected. Here, the Court specified that non-protected speech includes obscene speech, profane speech, libelous speech, and insulting or "fighting" words. However, since Chaplinsky was handed down, the Court has never sustained a conviction for "fighting words" in expression directed at a public official.