License to Harass

License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy, and Offensive Public Speech

Laura Beth Nielsen
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t50h
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    License to Harass
    Book Description:

    Offensive street speech--racist and sexist remarks that can make its targets feel both psychologically and physically threatened--is surprisingly common in our society. Many argue that this speech is so detestable that it should be banned under law. But is this an area covered by the First Amendment right to free speech? Or should it be banned?

    In this elegantly written book, Laura Beth Nielsen pursues the answers by probing the legal consciousness of ordinary citizens. Using a combination of field observations and in-depth, semistructured interviews, she surveys one hundred men and women, some of whom are routine targets of offensive speech, about how such speech affects their lives. Drawing on these interviews as well as an interdisciplinary body of scholarship, Nielsen argues that racist and sexist speech creates, reproduces, and reinforces existing systems of hierarchy in public places. The law works to normalize and justify offensive public interactions, she concludes, offering, in essence, a "license to harass."

    Nielsen relates the results of her interviews to statistical surveys that measure the impact of offensive speech on the public. Rather than arguing whether law is the appropriate remedy for offensive speech, she allows that the benefits to democracy, to community, and to society of allowing such speech may very well outweigh the burdens imposed. Nonetheless, these burdens, and the stories of the people who bear them, should not remain invisible and outside the debate.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2629-2
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xv)
  5. Chapter One INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-16)

    Words like these are spoken on the streets of America every day. To women, such words instill fear as a possible prelude to sexual violence. To people of color, such words bring the sting of racism, a bitter reminder that racial bias lives on and can surface anywhere, anytime, in subtle or blatant forms. To gays and lesbians such words convey a threat of hostility and aggression if they display affection for a same-sex partner or depart from conventional norms of dress and self-presentation. To all these groups, such words are a deep affront to personal dignity. To the courts,...

  6. Chapter Two LAW AND POWER IN SIDEWALK ENCOUNTERS: CONFLICTING PERSPECTIVES ON OFFENSIVE PUBLIC SPEECH
    (pp. 17-38)

    Offensive public speech is contested terrain. It is contested on the street. Those who utter racist or sexist comments may be consciously asserting a dominant role. The targets of such comments are faced with a choice about what to do in the face of such comments. Do they ee, do they ght, do they ignore, do they resist? Part of the contest on the street is a matter of interpretation. Is a crude comment a harmless compliment? Is it an inevitable occurrence in a diverse, sexually liberated society? Is it a hurtful offense? Or is it a threat?

    Offensive public...

  7. Chapter Three EXPERIENCING OFFENSIVE PUBLIC SPEECH: THE DETAILED CALCULUS FOR BEING IN PUBLIC
    (pp. 39-67)

    With few notable exceptions (Feagin 1991; Gardner 1995; Garnets, Herek, and Levy 1992; Landrine and Klonoff 1996), little empirical evidence exists about experiences with offensive public speech. Although some scholars advocate its legal regulation (Delgado 1993; Delgado and Yun 1995; Lawrence 1990; Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, and Crenshaw 1993), it is a social problem that remains largely invisible to members of privileged groups, perhaps because they less often are targets of such speech. Despite this invisibility, being the target of hate speech is a problem that members of traditionally disadvantaged groups share.

    In this chapter, I present data about the frequency...

  8. Chapter Four OFFENSIVE PUBLIC SPEECH AS A PERSONAL PROBLEM, SOCIAL PROBLEM, AND SUBJECT FOR LEGAL INTERVENTION
    (pp. 68-97)

    In chapter 3, I demonstrated that sexually suggestive public speech is a frequent problem for women in society, which deeply affects how and when they move in public. Similarly, people of color often are the target of race-related offensive public speech which requires them to steel themselves for unpredictable but troubling encounters. I also found some evidence that men and whites do not well understand the frequency and gravity of the harms that sexist and racist speech impose on target groups. Yet to what extent do groups—frequent and infrequent targets—regard offensive speech as a personal and social problem?...

  9. Chapter Five ORDINARY CITIZENS’ VIEWS ON THE LEGAL REGULATION OF STREET SPEECH
    (pp. 98-132)

    In this chapter I explore more deeply the fundamental reasons why subjects often oppose the legal regulation of offensive public speech. In chapter 3, I demonstrated how often street harassment occurs and the profound harm felt by those who are targets. In chapter 4, I showed that subjects frequently report that offensive public speech about race and sex poses a personal and social problem. Indeed many who arenotfrequent targets consider offensive public speech a serious social problem. Despite the fact that people generally view the law as an effective tool for resolving issues of race and gender discrimination,...

  10. Chapter Six POWER IN PUBLIC: REACTIONS, RESPONSES, AND RESISTANCE TO OFFENSIVE PUBLIC SPEECH
    (pp. 133-166)

    As other researchers have demonstrated and as I elaborate in chapters 2 and 3 of this book, white women and people of color regularly encounter offensive racist and sexually suggestive speech (Davis 1994; Duneier 1999; Feagin 1991; Gardner 1995; Nielsen 2000). Moreover, there is both empirical evidence and commentary that suggests that such speech is harmful to its targets (Delgado 1993; Feagin 1991; Landrine and Klonoff 1996). Chapters 3 and 4 show that the vast majority of subjects say that offensive sexually suggestive or racist speech in public places poses a personal and social problem.

    Nonetheless, both the formal law...

  11. Chapter Seven LICENSE TO HARASS
    (pp. 167-180)

    This inquiry began with the legal and academic debate about the legal status of offensive public speech and moved to an empirical analysis of how ordinary citizens experienced offensive public speech and thought about it with respect to law. By conducting this research at two levels—the official and the everyday—we have learned much about the relationship between law, legal consciousness, and social hierarchy in the contemporary United States. We have learned from a closer scrutiny of judicial opinion that the official treatment of offensive public speech does not seriously consider the costs and benefits of attempting to regulate...

  12. Appendix A RESEARCH DESIGN
    (pp. 181-197)
  13. Appendix B QUESTIONNAIRE
    (pp. 198-206)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 207-211)
  15. CASES CITED
    (pp. 212-212)
  16. REFERENCES
    (pp. 213-218)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 219-225)