Home » Articles » Case » Fighting Words and Free Speech » Lucas v. Arkansas (1974)

Written by John R. Vile, published on January 1, 2009 , last updated on May 6, 2024

Select Dynamic field

A North Little Rock, Arkansas, police officer was on patrol when individuals made derogatory comments to him, resulting in arrest and convictions for breach of the peace. The Supreme Court in the 1974 case Lucas v. Arkansas vacated the convictions, and remanded the case in light of its rulings about overly broad breach of peace laws. (Photo of Little Rock patrol car by Little Rock Police via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The single-sentence Supreme Court decision in Lucas v. Arkansas, 416 U.S. 919 (1974), vacated and remanded this case, along with Kelly v. Ohio, Rosen v. California, and Karlan v. City of Cincinnati, to a state court for further consideration in light of the Court’s opinion in Lewis v. City of New Orleans (1974).


Court remanded convictions after saying ordinance prohibiting fighting words violated First Amendment


Lewis had overturned a New Orleans ordinance on the basis that it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being overbroad in its attempt to prohibit vulgar and offensive speech and “fighting words,” as recognized in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) and Gooding v. Wilson (1972).


Individuals had been arrested for making derogatory comments to a policeman


In Lucas, individuals had been arrested and convicted for breach of the peace after directing several derogatory comments to a North Little Rock, Arkansas, policeman who was on routine patrol.


The Supreme Court of Arkansas confirmed the convictions.


The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the state’s judgment, and remanded the case for further consideration.


Dissenters thought state could punish ‘fighting words’


Justice Harry A. Blackmun, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist, wrote a dissenting opinion.


Blackmun said that Arkansas had already narrowed its own statute to “fighting words,” which it defined as language that in “ordinary acceptation is calculated to give offense and to arouse to anger.” Blackmun believed that the state could properly punish “language which in its ordinary acceptation is calculated to cause a breach of the peace.”


He further disputed the relevance of the decisions in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) and Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), which Justice William O. Douglas cited in his separate dissent in Karlan.


Douglas’s dissent, which applied to all four cases, favored overturning all the convictions on the basis that the laws under which they were justified were overly broad by including speech that was merely “vulgar” or “profane” along with genuine fighting words.


This article was originally published in 2009. John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment.


How To Contribute

The Free Speech Center operates with your generosity! Please donate now!