Disruptive Speech

Updated November 19, 2021
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Disruptive speech highlights the view that if an expression made communicates or intends harm, violence or an up-rise, it can be scrutinize under law. Thus, it is any speech that can disturb the peace or civilization of the society, it is classed as ‘fighting words’, true threats, or incitements. Any speech that does not intend dangers or public unrest will not be scrutinized and dismissed by the court.

Therefore, for the court to make these decisions there must be categories of speech that are unprotected such as blackmail, perjury, false advertising and obscenity. Furthermore, speech is also scrutinized according to the environment where it was stated or acted. To add, in times of war or political unrest certain radical speeches and protest can be seen as disruptive or judged differently if it was not within that period, thus, it makes the idea of the law unstable. Additionally, there are some speeches that have been enacted upon by government and approved by the courts for example, the Sedition Act, this incites that if a threat is made to the government you can be jailed. However, not every expression will be contested in the court of the law if the government disapproves.

Apart from governmental attempted interventions many tried to sue the media with the claim that some media content incited violence. The idea of the media is to entertain and bring focus to world occurrences, it does not intend to promote violence and harm. However, many people has stated that it encouraged negative behavior, though the courts see this as frivolous because one can not prove that it was the media’s intention but the focus is on the individual as they can take the content and do as they wish.

Therefore, once the content does not contradict the peace within society, offensive or derogatory speeches maybe dismissed by the court. Additionally, any speech intended to intimidate a person or groups that relates any bodily harm is not protected under the First Amendment. Also, speeches within the school arena are slightly censored as the view is that it should encourage the intentions and purpose of the institution. Thus, judges battle to find balance when deciding if the laws of the schools are unconstitutional and are violating the First Amendment for the students. Hence, there are tests and precedent cases to draw references and make decisions. The focus is to ensure that the students are well ‘modeled’ citizens without condemning their right to speak freely and becoming democratic citizens.

On the other hand, not all speeches are verbal, there are none verbal speech that can be related as symbolic speech for example, the wearing of armbands to signify a thought, however, it must be clear or true to be recognized as symbolic speech.

Key Terms

  • Sedition act – notably speech and the expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds.
  • True threats – A true threat is a threatening communication that can be prosecuted under the law.


  • Elonis vs. United States (2015)- Inciting threat lyrics on Facebook
  • Tinker v.s, Des Mornes (1969)- symbolic speech with within the school setting
  • Bethel School District v.s. Fraser- Interfered with the education process as a student used profanity and obscenity within a High school setting that addressed hundreds of minors.

Current Issues/ Controversies

The University of Pennsylvania had intentions to host the former director of U.S immigration and customs enforcement to address detention and deportation polices. However, the director, Thomas Homan, did not get the opportunity to speak because students were protesting and interrupted the proceedings because they disapproved of his presence. Prior to the event students signed a petition for the discussion to be cancelled but was denied therefore they concluded to protest.

However, few questions arise from the incident. for example, did the students cause disruptive speech as they shut down an event or does the First Amendment protect their views and right to protest. Also, is it that they violated the man’s right of freedom of speech by stifling his ideas and not allowing a democratic view. Interestingly, if this reached to the court then who is right or wrong.


How will the court conclude if someone intended to cause harm if the defendant argue that they were entertaining or not serious. How will the court know the persons true intentions?


  1. Trager, R., Ross, SD and Reynolds, A. (2017). The Lawof Journalism and Mass Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
  2. Johnson, Elin (2019). Controversial Speaker ICEd Out by Penn Students.
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