GOODING v. WILSON

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
70-26
Petitioner 
Wilson
Respondent 
Gooding
Tags
Term:
Facts of the Case 

A Georgia state court convicted Johnny Wilson of violating a state statute. The statute provided that "[a]ny person who shall, without provocation, use to or of another, and in his presence . . . opprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peace . . . shall be guilty of a misdemeanor." On appeal, Mr. Wilson argued that the statute violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Georgia Supreme Court rejected the argument. Mr. Wilson successfully sought habeas corpus relief from a Georgia federal district court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Question 

Does the Georgia statute prohibiting the use of "opprobrious words or abusive language, tending to cause a breach of the peace" violate the First Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for Wilson, 2 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 1: Speech, Press, and Assembly

Yes. The Supreme Court held that the Georgia statute was unconstitutional. With Justice William J. Brennan writing for the majority, the Court reasoned that the statute was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Quoting Speiser v. Randall, the Court noted that "the separation of legitimate from illegitimate speech calls for more sensitive tools than (Georgia) has supplied."

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger dissented. He disagreed with not only the manner in which the majority reached its decision, but also its conclusion. Ultimately, he argued that the statute was narrowly tailored and did not suppress or deter "important protected speech." Justice Harry A. Blackmun also dissented, joined by Chief Justice Burger. He found it implausible that a state could not restrict speech that was as wildly offensive as in this case.

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GOODING v. WILSON. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 12 December 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_26>.
GOODING v. WILSON, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_26 (last visited December 12, 2014).
"GOODING v. WILSON," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed December 12, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_26.