On April 6, 1940, a Jehovah's Witness named Walter Chaplinsky was arrested for yelling, “You are a God damned racketeer and a damned Fascist and the whole government of Rochester are Fascists or agents of Fascists” at a Rochester, New Hampshire police officer. The confrontation launched the case Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, which made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled against Chaplinsky, articulating an exception to the First Amendment for so-called “fighting words.” But the ruling didn’t come in a vacuum -- it followed a wave of oppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses, some of it encouraged by the Supreme Court itself.
In this inaugural episode host Ken White explores the Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire case and the ensuing “fighting words” doctrine, which is often cited in disputes over free speech in the United States. As he will throughout this series, he dives into the context and background of the case and some of the most important cases later explaining it.
The episode includes Chaplinsky’s story about what really happened on that day in 1940, as well as stories from other Jehovah’s witnesses in the 1930s and 1940s, including a ten-year-old boy expelled for refusing to salute the American flag. It features an interview with Shawn Peters, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution.”