The Phelpsians’ Picketing and Fighting Words

I’ve argued in earlier posts that the verdict against Phelps should be set aside because the intentional infliction of emotional distress tort is facially overbroad and thus unconstitutional as applied to speech. The tort might be constitutional if a court limits it to applying only to otherwise unprotected speech (such as threats, fighting words, and so on); but it has not been so limited.

Still, some say, what if the tort is so limited, perhaps by the appellate court in this case, and liability is defended on the grounds that the Phelpsians’ speech was unprotected under the “fighting words” exception? I expect that would require reversing the verdict and retrying the case, since the jury wasn’t required to find that the speech was fighting words — but why not have such a retrial, or perhaps even affirm the verdict on the grounds that the speech was clearly fighting words and thus the failure to instruct the jury more narrowly was harmless error?

Under the “fighting words” exception, speech is unprotected if “tend[s] to incite an immediate breach of the peace” by provoking a fight, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), so long as the speech consists of a “personally abusive epithet[] which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, [is], as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction,” Cohen v. California (1971), and is “directed to the person of the hearer,” and is thus likely to be seen as “a direct personal insult.” See Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942); Cohen v. California (1971).

I have no doubt that the speech here would lead many listeners to want to punch the speaker; it would lead me to want to do that, too. But the “direct personal insult” requirement is important, or else the doctrine would lead to the punishment of a vast range of controversial speech: picket signs that condemn strikebreakers; abortion clinic protests that call abortion providers “murderers” or “babykillers”; military base protests that call soldiers “murderers” or “babykillers”; a wide range of public speech that some see as racist, sexist, antigay, religiously bigoted, anti-immigrant; and so on. And of course, as I mentioned for the emotional distress tort, the speech would then be punishable through civil lawsuits, through criminal prosecutions, and through other mechanisms, such as universities disciplining students for engaging in the supposed fighting words.

Fortunately, courts have in recent decades read the fighting words exception narrowly, to prevent the punishment of such speech. Likewise, condemning a dead soldier, much as it might offend the soldier’s relatives, would not and should not be covered by the fighting words exception. And if it were found to be covered by such an exception, then I’d expect to see the exception grow to include many of the examples I mentioned.

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