Legalese — Fighting Words

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Georgia is not alone in that it has a statute which prohibits people from using “fighting words.”  But what are fighting words, exactly?

It is defined in O.C.G.A. §16-11-39(3) under ‘disorderly conduct’ this way: “A person commits the offense of disorderly conduct when such person…without provocation, uses to or of another person in such other person’s presence, opprobrious or abusive words which by their very utterance tend to incite to immediate breach of the peace: that is to say, words which as a matter of common knowledge and under ordinary circumstances will, when use to or of another person in such other person’s presence, naturally tend to provoke violent resentment, that is, words commonly called ‘fighting words.’”

So what does that mean?  Well, for one, it means that whatever is said has to either be said directly to the person who would allegedly be provoked to fight, or in their presence.  “talking behind someone’s back,” while potentially offensive, would not violate this statute.

The words themselves have to be “opprobrious or abusive.”  Abusive is a common word, but ‘opprobrious’ is not – I would venture a guess that most people have never seen that word except in connection with that statute.  Dictionary.com defined ‘opprobrious’ as “outrageously disgraceful or shameful.”

In other words, to be ‘fighting words,” the words have to be beyond whatever ‘normal’ disgraceful or shameful is – they have to be outrageously so.

So what is that?  Well, like many instance in the law, there is no straight answer.  There is no list of words you can’t use.  It all depends on contact.  For example, the “f” bomb in and of itself is not fighting words.  There are many contexts in which that word would not ‘naturally tend to provoke violent resentment.’  However, there are many contexts in which it would.  What a group of teenagers say to each other is very different to what a group of teenagers might say to a 75 year old Sunday School teacher on the steps of the church.

Whether or not the words used are fighting words is ‘dependent upon context, tone, accompanying action, and a variety of other circumstances.’  See Posr v. Court Officer Shield No. 207, 180 F. 3d 409, 416(II)©(1)(2nd Cir., 1999). These words may or may not be profane – there are times when saying, “you’re a big fat pig” might be considered ‘fighting words’ though each of those words, on its own, would be ok for a 3 year old to say.  “[O]nly against the background of surrounding events can a judgment be made whether these words had ‘a direct tendency to cause acts of violence’ by others.”  Tucker v. State, 233 Ga. App. 314, 317 (1998).

Of course, whether or not these words constitute ‘fighting words,’ they are almost always ’rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.’  Lundgren v. State, 238 Ga. App. 425, 427 (1999).  I’m not aware of any advantage to being ‘rude, crude, and socially unacceptable’ so, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t say it in front of your Grandma, don’t say it at all.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the particular details of your situation.

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