Landmark Supreme Court Case: Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) is the 83rd landmark Supreme Court case, eighth in the Speech, Press, and Protest module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)
Under New Hampshire’s Offensive Conduct law (chap. 378, para. 2 of the NH. Public Laws) it is illegal for anyone to address “any offensive, derisive or annoying word to anyone who is lawfully in any street or public place … or to call him by an offensive or derisive name.”
On April 6, 1940, Walter Chaplinsky, a Jehovah’s Witness, was using the public sidewalk as a pulpit in downtown Rochester, passing out pamphlets and calling organized religion a “racket.” After a large crowd had begun blocking the roads and generally causing a scene, a police officer removed Chaplinsky to take him to police headquarters. Upon seeing the town marshal (who had returned to the scene after warning Chaplinsky earlier to keep it down and avoid causing a commotion), Chaplinsky attacked the marshal verbally. He was then arrested.
The complaint against Chaplinsky stated that he shouted: “You are a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist”. Chaplinsky admitted that he said the words charged in the complaint, with the exception of the name of the deity. For this, he was charged and convicted under a New Hampshire statute forbidding intentionally offensive speech directed at others in a public place.
Chaplinsky appealed the fine he was assessed, claiming that the law was “vague” and that it infringed upon his First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech.
Q: Did Chaplinsky’s conviction violate the First Amendment?
A: No. “Fighting words” fall outside the protections of the First Amendment
Unanimous holding a criminal conviction for causing a breach of the peace through the use of “fighting words” does not violate the Free Speech guarantee of the First Amendment. There exist certain categorical exceptions to First Amendment protections, including obscenities, certain profane and slanderous speech, and “fighting words.” Chaplinsky’s insults were “fighting words” since they caused a direct harm to their target and could be construed to advocate an immediate breach of the peace; thus, they lacked the social value of disseminating ideas to the public that lay behind the rights granted by the First Amendment. A state can use its police power to curb their expression in the interests of maintaining order and morality.
Subsequent cases, in the Supreme Court, lower federal courts, and state courts have reached diverse conclusions on what constitute fighting words that are outside the protection of the First Amendment. The cases have also varied on what contexts – such as the reaction of hearers (public officials, police officers, ordinary citizens) – make a difference for the limits on protected speech. A particularly provocative example occurred in Cohen v. California (1971) in which an individual was criminally charged for wearing, in a courthouse, a jacket on which was written “Fuck the Draft.” The Supreme Court held that the Chaplinsky doctrine did not control this case, and overturned the conviction.
Next Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Dennis v. U.S. (1951)
Previous Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Hague v. CIO (1939)
Next Case: Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942)
Previous Case: Ex Parte Quirin (1942)