Fighting words

Something Vardibidian said about this whole cartoon-inspired violence mess reminded me of something--although the below is at best a side note on the real and serious issues at stake in the Danish cartoon matter, and possibly not even relevant.

Back in October of 2001, I wrote an entry about freedom of speech. In the wake of 9/11, I had been doing some research into the issues involved, and I was astonished at the limits on free speech that we have, even under ordinary non-war circumstances, right here in the U.S. of A.

In particular, I wrote:

In Chaplinsky vs State of New Hampshire (1942), the Supreme Court ruled that New Hampshire's law prohibiting certain kinds of "fighting words" speech was constitutional. (It's a surprising opinion to me. It closes with statements like "Argument is unnecessary to demonstrate that the appellations 'damn racketeer' and 'damn Fascist' are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace.")

I went on to further discuss that decision and its limits; it's not as strong a statement as it sounds. (See the entry for details.) And I doubt that a state law prohibiting people from calling someone a "damn racketeer" (or even a "fucking terrorist") would be upheld by the Supreme Court at this point.

Still, the fact remains that only a few decades ago in the US, it was considered obvious that certain epithets were strong enough to provoke any reasonable person to violence, and therefore it was okay for states to make that kind of speech illegal.

I'm hesitant to post this entry, because (given my silence on the subject heretofore) it would be easy to read this as my attempt to say something meaningful about the Danish cartoon situation. The truth is that I have a lot of mixed and complicated reactions to that situation, and haven't had time or energy to sit down and massage those reactions into a coherent statement/comment, or even to put together a list of links to the few reasoned and nuanced and well-thought-out pieces I've seen by others.

But I do think the "fighting words" thing is an interesting sidelight, especially in relation to Vardibidian's comments about provoking anger.

By the way, on a different aspect of all this (significantly more relevant than my comments above are), you may be interested in Vardibidian's guest blogger's discussion of aniconism and Islamic art.

One Response to “Fighting words”

  1. Michael

    I think it’s important in this context to also mention the heckler’s veto. While fighting words are still treated as an exception to free speech in the US, this is not supposed to allow people to shut down speech by threatening a violent response. For example, person A cannot tell person B, “If you say ‘I oppose the war’, I will punch you” and thereby turn the words “I oppose the war” into fighting words. Nazis can march down the street in Skokie despite the potentially violent response, because otherwise we both shut down controversial speech and encourage violent responses.


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