Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, in which a Georgia public college weaponized its speech zone policies to silence a black Christian student who dared to preach the gospel on campus. While the college has since dropped its absurd speech zone restrictions, the student is seeking damages so the college cannot claim it was in the right to silence him. In the course of defending the college, Attorney General Christopher M. Carr (R-Ga.) briefly argued that Uzuegbunam’s preaching of the gospel constituted “fighting words” and therefore was not protected by the First Amendment.
“Plaintiff’s open-air speaking arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words,’” Carr wrote in a brief seeking to dismiss the case. “Fighting words,” i.e. an attempt to incite a crowd to violence, is one of the few categories of speech not entitled to any protection under the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not protect incitement to violence just as it does not protect yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater where there is no fire.
“Plaintiff used contentious religious language that, when directed to a crowd, has a tendency to incite hostility,” Carr argued, suggesting that Uzuegbunam’s efforts at evangelism should be considered incitement to violence and therefore excluded from protection under the First Amendment.
To his credit, Carr later disavowed this argument. After Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, quoted this argument on The Briefing Wednesday, Carr reached out, explaining that he had removed the argument that the gospel is “fighting words.” He became attorney general in 2016 as his office was litigating the case, and it appears that his staff wrote the brief before he was able to reverse the argument.
“He stated to me that he emphatically does not identify the gospel of Jesus Christ with the language of fighting words when it comes to constitutionality,” Mohler reported on Thursday.
Even so, the fact that lawyers working for the State of Georgia would consider making this argument is terrifying. “The point here is the abhorrence of considering the gospel of Jesus Christ as fighting words,” Mohler noted. “That does tell us again a great deal of where we stand in America, at least with some.”