Since Street v. New York, the Supreme Court has significantly narrowed the grounds on which speech can be considered "fighting words" and thus could legally be banned. In Collin v. Smith, SCOTUS held that Nazis marching in uniform and displaying swastikas through a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors was protected speech. In Snyder v. Phelps, SCOTUS held that protesting against dead soldiers at their funerals, including signs that Phelps himself said were intentionally outrageous was protected speech.

So if I can march around a Jewish neighborhood in an SS uniform, and I can shout about how dead soldiers are burning in hell at their funerals, what can't I do? What are some examples of speech that is not protected due to being classified as "fighting words"?

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    Shortly after the Columbia disaster, Phelps and his deplorable Westboro Baptist Church crew decided to protest just outside the main gate of the Johnson Space Center. "God struck down the Columbia!", and I won't write the even worse signs they bandied about other than to say they were full of vile, vulgar, ignorant, and hateful words. I knew one of the astronauts who died with that disaster. After getting over being rather angry, that is when I started donating money to the ACLU. Freedom of speech is not about tolerating speech one agrees with. It is about tolerating speech one disagrees with. Jan 18, 2021 at 20:13
  • @DavdHammen I absolutely agree. You don't need constitutional protections to say things people agree with.
    – Ryan_L
    Jan 18, 2021 at 20:19

2 Answers 2


The content of the "fighting words" doctrine seems to be reduced to certain personal insults, and the term plays a minimal role in court rulings. In Snyder v. Phelps, the expression is used twice, once referring to the position of the dissent, and once in scare quotes where it is a third-generation quote from Chaplinsky (and at any rate, the conclusion was "this isn't that"). Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 seems to be the most recent positive invocation of the concept by SCOTUS:

a State may punish those words "which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, supra, at 572; see also R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul, supra, at 383 (listing limited areas where the First Amendment permits restrictions on the content of speech). We have consequently held that fighting words-"those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction" -are generally proscribable under the First Amendment. Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15, 20 (1971); see also Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

I find are no concrete examples of epithets held to be actual "fighting words" from the past 50 years. In Chaplinsky, it was held that

the appellations "damned racketeer" and "damned Fascist" are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace

There has been a steady retreat from this conclusion for almost 80 years. Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315 upheld a conviction for a provocative speech, making "derogatory remarks concerning President Truman, the American Legion, the Mayor of Syracuse, and other local political officials". The court found that the actual effect on the crowd was what mattered, not the content of the speech, and there is no report of what the "fighting words" were. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 dials the fighting words concept back further, to being words "likely to be seen as a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs" – but Johnson did not utter fighting words, so again the court did not definitively point to any actual "fighting words".

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    I always thought "fighting words" as used here would necessarily apply only to a singular person, and thus the examples fall outside the parameter. But your references include the use against groups of people. Interesting.
    – Stian
    Jan 18, 2021 at 8:05
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    so being a damned fascist is protected speech, but calling that person a damned fascist might not be? US free speech law is has some whack priorities...
    – Tristan
    Jan 18, 2021 at 11:54
  • Surely there are no words which by their very utterance inflict injury? Sure, a crowd can chant "HANG MIKE PENCE" but no injury is inflicted until Mike Pence is actually hanged?
    – user253751
    Jan 18, 2021 at 13:36
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    @Rstew I think it's also a death threat, which is separately illegal. A death threat against the sitting Vice President is, again, itself also separately illegal.
    – J...
    Jan 18, 2021 at 16:41
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    @user253751 Obviously words can't directly cause physical injury, but they can cause psychological injury. But in any case, the rest of the definition covers the injury that the utterance is likely to incite.
    – Barmar
    Jan 18, 2021 at 16:47


Here is a law review article with 15 relatively recent (compared to Chaplinsky) instances of fighting words being found by lower courts. It also has an analysis of which words and acts are most likely to cause a court to find fighting words.

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