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"Fighting Words" - Legal Justification for Violence?

Discussion in 'Cultural Discussions' started by emma42, May 28, 2006.

  1. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    Hello all. In a thread in the English Only Forum entitled "dago..." a forero stated that in the USA there is a classification of words called "Fighting words" and that the use of such words was legal justification (not, moral) for an attack causing bodily harm to the user ie if someone were to use one of these words (eg racial slur) you would be legally entitled to beat him/her up, as long as you did not cause serious maiming or death!

    I was really surprised by this, as we do not have such a law in England.

    What do other forer@s think of this and is there a similar law in your country?
     
  2. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    I do not agree with this interpretation of the fighting words doctrine. If I understand it correctly, it means that certain words are not protected under the Constitutional protection of free speech if they inflict injury by simply uttering them, or if they can reasonably be expected to incite violence or some other breach of the peace. This does not mean that the resulting violence is protected. It means that the speaker can be prosecuted for using the words, without the benefit of the usual protection of free speech.
     
  3. emma42 Senior Member

    North East USA
    British English
    We have the same laws in England, mainly under the Public Order Act 1968, "words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress" to paraphrase one section.

    Also, we have newer laws specifically dealing with racially motivated slurs or slurs against one's religion.
     
  4. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    I think the writer in the EO forum had it wrong. The expression, "those are/them's fighting words" has been around for a very long time. It means that the speaker is accusing someone of saying something very provocative, and if not retracted, those words will lead to a fight.

    I know of no legal protection that allows bodily harm or property damage to be excused based on any set of words.
     
  5. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    Here's a little more:

    http://64.233.161.104/search?q=cache:TaU3GXjlJi8J:12.170.132.252/default2.asp%3Fselected%3D746%26bold%3D%257C%257C%257C%257C+law+%22fighting+words%22&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=2
     
  6. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
  7. moodywop Banned

    Southern Italy
    Italian - Italy
    Thank you for a most interesting article, Cuchu. I've found a similar one regarding Italian legal decisions here.

    In a recent post I made a sweeping statement suggesting that restrictions on free speech were extremely rare in Western democracies (the exceptions I was thinking of were defamation/libel etc). I stand corrected. To my surprise I've found out that our laws on fighting words are very strict but enforced inconsistently. By the way, the word ingiuria (used in our laws) has nothing to do with physical injury.

    When we were asked about the strength of the word coglioni (used by Berlusconi to refer to those voting for the opposition parties)at IE, Elaine quoted a recent sentence (upheld by our supreme court) fining a man for calling someone a coglione. He had also uttered threats, though. However, amazingly enough, in 2003 Berlusconi sued a man who shouted buffone! at him while he was leaving the courthouse where he had just testified. The man was fined 500 euro. A carabiniere was fined for repeatedly calling an immigrant he had stopped stronzo (turd). In this case our supreme court argued that the law on ingiuria applied even when no animus iniurandi (willingness to offend) could be proved. Again, a military officer was fined for calling one of his subordinates coglione.

    I should add that we still have old laws in our statutes dating back to Mussolini's regime, which our constantly squabbling politicians have never found the time to repeal (e.g. our religious education teachers have to be "approved" by bishops and this is subject to yearly review!).

    Here's something interesting I only found out about recently, thanks to the IE forum. An American Italian enquired about a euphemistic version of vaffanculo he used to hear from his grandfather: vaffà a Napoli. Italians speculated that it might be an offensive anti-Neapolitan phrase. Then I asked a 90-year-old Neapolitan. He told me that the phrase had been coined by Neapolitans themselves as a clever way of cursing without breaking the law since under Fascism you could be fined on the spot by policemen for using swearwords!
     
  8. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London
    English - England
    I was really surprised at this too. In England, I think that in if you kill someone, their last words may be relevant to the issue of whether you were badly enough provoked for the crime to be reduced from murder to manslaughter. I am not sure whether anybody was ever saved from the hangman's noose because of what their victim said. But I don't think anything your victim says can get you off any crime of violence in any other way.
     
  9. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London
    English - England
    All this sounds very alien to me. We don't have a 1st amendment over here. Here you can be arrested for 'breach of the peace' or 'behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace' for rattling your tea cup too loudly on its saucer.
     

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