Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones But Names Can Really Hurt You: Justifying the Use of Force as a Defense Against 'Mere Words'

Leslie Yalof Garfield

Pace University - School of Law

September 10, 2008

Words hurt! Beginning in the 1950's, courts have recognized that words, by their very utterance, can inflict injury and harm. The law redresses those who suffer injury from harmful speech through a series of seemingly innocuous remedies including financial remuneration or retribution through minimal criminal penalties. The law stops, however, at granting individuals the right to use any type of force to prevent against the use of harmful words. In other words, legislatures and courts have been unwilling to elevate an actor's use of harmful words, or a victim's defense against them, to the same jurisprudential echelon as they do the use of physical force. But new scientific studies confirm that a word or some types of emotional harm can inflict as much pain as a punch. Biological and neurochemical studies are rapidly advancing our understanding of human behavior. New knowledge supports the conclusion that one can experience physical pain in response to a tone or particular words. The law's failure to excuse those defending against harmful words is unjustified in light of these recent neuroscience findings. This paper will propose that the criminal law should extend the self-defense doctrine to permit one to protect him or her self from an imminent threat of bodily harm even if that bodily harm is inflicted through verbal or psychic abuse.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 8

Keywords: speech, physical force

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Date posted: September 12, 2008  

Suggested Citation

Garfield, Leslie Yalof, Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones But Names Can Really Hurt You: Justifying the Use of Force as a Defense Against 'Mere Words' (September 10, 2008). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1266234 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1266234

Contact Information

Leslie Yalof Garfield (Contact Author)
Pace University - School of Law ( email )
78 North Broadway
United States
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