Nina Baccala stopped by a store in Connecticut one afternoon to transfer some money through Western Union. The store’s manager said she was too late. Nina was not happy; she called the manager “fat” and “ugly” along with several other profanities. She was later convicted of breach of peace and sentenced to 25 days in jail.
The Supreme Court of Connecticut overturned Baccala’s conviction. It said that while Baccala’s words were “extremely offensive and meant to personally demean,” they were constitutional. The prosecutor tried to fit Baccala’s tirade into the “fighting words” exemption to protected speech. “Fighting words” dates back to a 1942 U.S. Supreme Court decision which carved out from First Amendment protection words that ‘‘have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.’’ For the most part, courts have to determine on a case-by-case basis whether the words at issue are “fighting words.”
As this decision said in the very first paragraph, Baccala’s case serves as an important reminder of a key principle from a critical Supreme Court case on First Amendment law:
“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Case: Connecticut v. Baccala, No. SC 19717, (Conn. July 11, 2017) (opinion here)