Fighting words

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Fighting words are written or spoken words, generally expressed to incite hatred or violence from their target. Specific definitions, freedoms, and limitations of fighting words vary by jurisdiction. It is also used in a general sense of words that when uttered create (deliberately or not) a verbal or physical confrontation by their mere usage.



In Canada, freedom of speech is generally protected under Section 2 of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Criminal Code of Canada, however, limits these freedoms and provides for several forms of punishable hate speech. The form of punishable hate speech considered to encompass fighting words is identified in Section 319:[1]

Public incitement of hatred (s. 319[1]). Every one who, by communicating statements in a public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of [a crime].

s. 319[1], Criminal Code of Canada

United States

The fighting words doctrine, in United States constitutional law, is a limitation to freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In its 9-0 decision, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), the U.S. Supreme Court established the doctrine and held that "insulting or 'fighting words,' those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" are among the "well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [which] the prevention and punishment of...have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem."

Chaplinsky decision

Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness, had purportedly told a New Hampshire town marshal who was attempting to prevent him from preaching "You are a God-damned racketeer" and "a damned fascist" and was arrested. The court upheld the arrest and wrote in its decision that

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting words" those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. 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.

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