In Karlan v. City of Cincinnati, 416 U.S. 924 (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a city ordinance prohibiting words uttered in an “ ‘abusive,’ ‘vulgar,’ ‘insulting,’ ‘profane,’ ‘indecent,’ [or] ‘boistrous’ ” manner violated the Constitution by being vague and overbroad. After its review, the Court remanded the case to the Ohio Supreme Court with instructions to rely on the precedent established by Gooding v. Wilson (1972) and Lewis v. City of New Orleans (1974).
Ohio Supreme Court ruled that city ordinance was a constiutional repsponse to “fighting words”
The Ohio Supreme Court had ruled in 1973 that the city ordinance was rightfully applied to a defendant who had shouted profanities at police officers and called them “pigs.” The court reasoned that the ordinance was constitutional, because the words spoken to the police officers would have provoked an average person to a retaliatory response that breached the peace. In essence, the court ruled that the words spoken to the officer were “fighting words” that were not protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments under Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942).
Supreme Court had held that statutes needed to be narrowly defined
Gooding and Lewis had invalidated similar ordinances in other jurisdictions, because the ordinances failed to narrowly define unprotected speech. The U.S. Supreme Court had held that only through narrowly defined statutes can people engage in speech that is protected without fear of criminal prosecution.
In Lewis, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. had written a separate opinion concurring with the outcome of the Court’s majority opinion, but for different reasons. The opinion is applicable to the factual circumstances in Karlan in that Justice Powell reasoned that words spoken to police officers should not be considered “fighting words,” because police officers are trained to exercise a higher degree of constraint than the average citizen.
One interesting aspect of Karlan is that Justice William O. Douglas dissented from the opinion of the majority to remand the case — he favored reversing the decision outright — because state courts “have consistently shown either inability or unwillingness to apply” standards established by earlier Supreme Court rulings.
This article was originally published in 2009. Kevin Buckler is a professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Houston-Downtown. His interest in the First Amendment relates to the codification of restrictions on free speech into city ordinances and state law, as well as free speech limitations in the prosecution of criminal cases.