Categories of Unprotected Expression

1) Subversive Advocacy.  For subversive advocacy (speech that advocates lawlessness) to fall outside the protections of the First Amendment the speech must satisfy a two-part test.  The speech must consist of (1) advocacy directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and (2) speech that is likely to incite or produce such action. This is known as the Brandenburg test. In applying prong one of the Brandenburg test, the Court engages in a literal interpretation of the speech to determine whether it advocates immediate lawless action as compared to speech that advocates lawlessness at some future time or only conditionally. In applying prong two, the best evidence of whether speech is likely to produce imminent lawless action is if there actually was lawless activity immediately following the speech.

2) Fighting Words. Fighting words are a narrow category of unprotected speech that are defined as words spoken in a face to face exchange such as personal insults or epithets which by their very utterance are likely to cause the person to whom they are addressed to respond with violence directed at the speaker. Fighting words must be insults personally directed at the person they are addressed to and not political statements that the hearer finds deeply offensive to his or her beliefs. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between provocative political speech that is fully protected and unprotected fighting words.

3) True Threats. True threats are defined as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” To be a true threat, “the speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat.” True threats are distinguishable from political hyperbole, which is protected political expression. Intimidation “is a type of true threat, where the speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.”

4) Obscenity. As defined by Miller v. California’s three prong test, to be obscene material must (1) be a work that the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest and (2) the work must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable obscenity law, and (3) the work, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

5) Child Pornography. Under New York v. Ferber, child pornography is an unprotected category of expression and consists of visual depictions of actual children engaged in sexual activity or the lewd exhibition of the genitals. Unlike obscenity, it is not judged by the work taken as a whole and, therefore, can consist of isolated segments of an entire work. It also is unprotected even if it doesn't appeal to the prurient interest or portray child sexual activity in a patently offensive manner. In addition, in contrast to obscenity, the Court has, thus far, not carved out an exemption for child pornography with serious value. On the other hand, the reason for the Court’s willingness to allow child pornography to be prohibited is to protect actual children. Thus, child pornography is limited to visual images of actual children.

6) Commercial speech that concerns illegal activity or commercial speech that is false or misleading. Under the Central Hudson test, commercial speech is only protected if it concerns legal activity and if the content is true and not misleading. This limit on the protection of commercial speech was used by the Supreme Court in the recent case of United States v. Williams. In that case, the Court upheld a federal law that criminalizes pandering of child pornography (advertising, promoting, presenting, distributing or soliciting) even if the defendant does not possess any actual child pornography because the advertising of an illegal product (child pornography) is not speech protected by the First Amendment.