Legal Principle at Issue
Whether a Georgia criminal statute prohibiting “opprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peace” violates the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts and held the statute unconstitutional.
After being convicted under the statute, Johnny Wilson 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.” He argued it 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,” and that it was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Importance of Case
The case shows the importance of the overbreadth principle in First Amendment law. The Supreme Court held that the petitioner was not required to show how the statute could be properly construed because of the “transcendent value to all society” of free expression. The Court also noted that if the statute could be shown to burden protected expression through vagueness or overbreadth in a circumstance different from the petitioner’s, the statute would not apply to the petitioner. The court justified both positions by referencing the chilling effect an overbroad or vague statute has on the constitutional right of citizens to express themselves.
The Supreme Court’s review of Georgia’s application of the statute showed that the Georgia courts did not narrow the statute only to expression considered “fighting words” which are without First Amendment protection. Instead, the Court found, Georgia courts applied the statute “to utterances where there was no likelihood that the person addressed would make an immediate violent response.” Therefore, the Supreme Court held the statute unconstitutional.