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). 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).

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

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.

Send Feedback on this article