Category: 

What are Fighting Words?

Article Details
  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Images By: Jason Stitt, Monkey Business, Tex Hex
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2016
    Conjecture Corporation
  • Print this Article
Free Widgets for your Site/Blog
A recent study suggests that former acne sufferers are more likely to retain a youthful appearance as they age.  more...

December 9 ,  1979 :  The eradication of smallpox was certified.  more...

Fighting words are words specifically and purposefully used with the intention of causing a listener emotional distress or inciting violent reactions from a listener or listeners. Numerous countries that protect freedom of speech, such as the United States (US) and Canada, do not protect fighting words and have passed numerous laws or court case rulings that criminalize the use of such language. In certain situations, the use of fighting words can even be used in the US as a foundation upon which to build a case for assault, though the words themselves do not justify assault and further violent action is required.

Sometimes referred to as hate speech, fighting words are spoken or written with the expressed intent of inciting violence from the listeners or readers. This can be directed toward a specific person or toward a general group of people defined along racial, religious, or other cultural lines. The words used are often not considered only by themselves, but also within the context in which they are uttered or written. Certain words could be used during a rally for social change as evidence of what opposition groups have said about those at the rally and not be considered illegal. The same words, if spoken among a group of people opposing the change and seemingly on the verge of violence, may be illegal if it can be demonstrated that the intent of the word choice was to incite violence.

Ad

This fine line of difference, the need to demonstrate intent, has often led to how a particular case regarding fighting words has been considered by courts. In the US, for example, in the 1942 case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, Walter Chaplinsky was arrested after using angry and potentially offensive language toward a law enforcement officer. The arrest was upheld by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that words that “…by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace…” are not protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the protection of free speech.

Since that ruling, other rulings have narrowly defined the meaning of fighting words to ensure that such laws and rulings are not used as a means of government censorship. Society may generally desire to limit the use of offensive or degrading language by individuals for the sake of propriety. US courts, however, have continually upheld the rights of individuals to say what they like so long as the words do not cross the line and attempt to cause violent behavior in listeners. Canada has placed similar limitations on free speech when such speech is intended to cause violence or a breach of the peace.

Ad

You might also Like

Recommended

Discuss this Article

Phaedrus
Post 2

I suppose one of the problems with defining "fighting words" is you can never tell what words might set someone off. Obviously, using racially charged epithets or obscene sexual references are not protected under the First Amendment. But there are other insults that could push someone's buttons just because of the circumstances in which they were uttered. No legislator could ever come up with a comprehensive list of hate or fighting words. Someone could tell an off-color "Yo Mama" joke to co-worker and not realize how offensive it would be to one of them. Using any kind of hostile or obscene language is fraught with peril.

mrwormy
Post 1

Sometimes there's freedom of speech, and then there's freedom *from* speech. I have a right to shout "I think bikers are a bunch of sissies" without the government arresting me. However, I don't have the right to say it in front of a bar filled with motorcycle club members. I'd have to know I was trying to incite violence, so I couldn't claim "freedom of speech" if it happened. Other people have the right to protection from hate speech.

Post your comments

Post Anonymously

Login

username
password
forgot password?

Register

username
password
confirm
email