Fighting Words Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Fighting Words, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Fighting Words?

n. Words stated towards another person that are intentionally nasty and full of malice which cause the person emotions distress or cause him/her to retaliate physically. If the words are threatening, they can form the basis for a lawsuit for assault although they are not an excuse or defense for a retaliatory assault or battery.

History and Meaning of Fighting Words

Fighting words are insulting words that objectively promote an immediate and substantial danger of violence from the listener. The idea of fighting words was first introduced in the Supreme Court case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942. The court held that the First Amendment protection does not extend to words that "by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." In essence, these fighting words were grounds for the state to punish the speaker, resulting in the restriction of free speech to some extent.

Examples of Fighting Words

Here are a few examples of statements that could potentially be classified as fighting words:

  • A man insults and curses at another person, calling them derogatory terms that are meant to cause emotional harm and elicit a physical response of violence.
  • A woman makes a statement intended to cause an immediate breach of the peace, such as yelling “bomb” in a crowded theater.
  • A group of protesters yelling insults at police officers or other individuals in a way that is clearly intended to provoke and incite violence.

Legal Terms Similar to Fighting Words

A few related legal terms you should be aware of include:

  • Hate speech: Speech that offends, threatens or insults a particular person, group or race on the basis of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.

  • Incitement: The action of provoking unlawful behavior or urging someone to behave recklessly. Incitement to violence is not protected by the First Amendment.

  • Slander: A false statement that is spoken with malice and that casts a negative light upon a particular individual or group. Slander can form the basis for a lawsuit for damages to reputation.