How does the "fighting words" doctrine apply to printed material?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that the key and most critical function of the "fighting words" standard comes out of the Chaplinsky decision that gave rise to the concept.  The direct aiming of language to a particular person or group is what seemed to act as the trigger in the Court's decision:  "It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality."  When Chaplinsky called the marshal a "fascist" and "racketeer," the court felt that it was targeted language that implied and invited confrontation.  No broader social or transcendent message could be assessed given the targeted nature of the words that would invite action to be taken.  I think that printed literature or material might be able to fall under this standard, but it should be noted that the court has interpreted the standard in a more steady and narrow fashion since the Chaplinsky decision.  Mere "offensiveness" has not been seen as "fighting words."  This might be where all speech and printed literature falls.  Offensive language that is in printed material can be deemed as exempt from the "fighting words" standard.

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