The constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech forbid the states to punish the use of words or language not within narrowly limited classes of speech. Even as to such a class, however, because the line between speech unconditionally guaranteed and speech which may legitimately be regulated, suppressed, or punished is finely drawn. Any statute must be carefully drawn or be authoritatively construed to punish only unprotected speech and not be susceptible of application to protected expression.
Defendant Wilson picketed a building in which the United States Army was located in opposition to the war in Vietnam. When inductees arrived, there was a scuffle. Thereafter, Wilson committed assault and battery on two police officers and used opprobrious and abusive words. Consequently, Wilson was convicted in the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia, for violation of a O.G.C.A. § 26-6303, a Georgia statute which made it a misdemeanor for any person, without provocation, to use to or of another, and in his presence, "opprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peace." Rejecting defendant’s contention that the aforementioned statute violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments as being vague and overbroad, the state supreme court affirmed Wilson’s conviction. Thereafter, the defendant instituted habeas corpus proceedings in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, which court set aside the conviction on the ground that the Georgia statute, on its face, was unconstitutionally vague and broad. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The State appealed the judgment, arguing that the statute in question was narrowly drawn to apply only to a constitutionally unprotected class of words, namely fighting words.
Was O.G.C.A. § 26-6303 unconstitutionally vague and broad?
The Court held that the Georgia statute was, on its face, unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, since the state courts had not, by construction, limited the statutory proscription to "fighting" words, which by their very utterance tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. Furthermore, the Court found that the statute had not been construed to be limited in application to words that had a direct tendency to cause acts of violence the person to whom, individually, the remark was addressed.