Fighting words are words specifically and purposefully used with the intention of causing a listener emotional distress or inciting violent reactions from a listener or listeners. Numerous countries that protect freedom of speech, such as the United States (US) and Canada, do not protect fighting words and have passed numerous laws or court case rulings that criminalize the use of such language. In certain situations, the use of fighting words can even be used in the US as a foundation upon which to build a case for assault, though the words themselves do not justify assault and further violent action is required.
Sometimes referred to as hate speech, fighting words are spoken or written with the expressed intent of inciting violence from the listeners or readers. This can be directed toward a specific person or toward a general group of people defined along racial, religious, or other cultural lines. The words used are often not considered only by themselves, but also within the context in which they are uttered or written. Certain words could be used during a rally for social change as evidence of what opposition groups have said about those at the rally and not be considered illegal. The same words, if spoken among a group of people opposing the change and seemingly on the verge of violence, may be illegal if it can be demonstrated that the intent of the word choice was to incite violence.
This fine line of difference, the need to demonstrate intent, has often led to how a particular case regarding fighting words has been considered by courts. In the US, for example, in the 1942 case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, Walter Chaplinsky was arrested after using angry and potentially offensive language toward a law enforcement officer. The arrest was upheld by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that words that “…by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace…” are not protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the protection of free speech.
Since that ruling, other rulings have narrowly defined the meaning of fighting words to ensure that such laws and rulings are not used as a means of government censorship. Society may generally desire to limit the use of offensive or degrading language by individuals for the sake of propriety. US courts, however, have continually upheld the rights of individuals to say what they like so long as the words do not cross the line and attempt to cause violent behavior in listeners. Canada has placed similar limitations on free speech when such speech is intended to cause violence or a breach of the peace.