In 1942, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, a unanimous Supreme Court in an opinion written by Justice Frank Murphy, upheld the conviction for a Jehovah’s Witness named Walter Chaplinksy for violating a New Hampshire statute involving verbal abuse.

To the extent that Chaplinsky is understood as standing for the proposition that speech tending to incite an immediate breach of peace is not protected by the First Amendment, it was and is an unremarkable opinion, then and now. To the extent that Chaplinsky stands for the broader philosophical proposition that society may in appropriate circumstances curtail expression to deter immediate threats to order, it is equally unremarkable.

What makes Chaplinsky quite remarkable however, is the suggestion that there are occasions when words alone may inflict injury that society may redress without abridging the guarantees of the First Amendment, including injury to society’s moral fabric. It is this more profound possibility, that expression may be regulated in the service of both order and morality, that continues to vex free speech doctrine and theory, and renders the ongoing interpretation of Chaplinsky worth serious investigation.

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