Situating Legal Consciousness: Experiences and Attitudes of Ordinary Citizens about Law and Street Harassment

By Nielsen, Laura Beth | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Situating Legal Consciousness: Experiences and Attitudes of Ordinary Citizens about Law and Street Harassment


Nielsen, Laura Beth, Law & Society Review


The legal consciousness of ordinary citizens concerning offensive public speech is a phenomenon whose legal status has been vigorously debated, but which has received little empirical analysis. Drawing on observations in public spaces in three northern California communities and in-depth interviews with 100 subjects recruited from these public locations, I analyze variation across race and gender groups in experiences with offensive public speech and attitudes about how such speech should be dealt with by law. Among these respondents, white women and people of color are far more likely than white men to report being the targets of offensive public speech. However, white women and people of color are not significantly more likely than white men to favor its legal regulation. Respondents generally oppose the legal regulation of offensive public speech, but they employ different discourses to explain why. Subjects' own words suggest four relatively distinct paradigms that emphasize the First Amendment, autonomy, impracticality, and distrust of authority. Members of different racial and gender groups tend to use different discourses. These differences suggest that the legal consciousness of ordinary citizens is not a unitary phenomenon, but must be situated in relation to particular types of laws, particular social hierarchies, and the experiences of different groups with the law.

"[H]ey white bitch, come suck my dick!"1 "I hate women; they're all sluts."2 "Monkey for a dollar!"3

"You fucking people need to go back where you came from, I'm sick of this, you come over here and think you can take everything away from us."4

I. Introduction When one experiences remarks such as these in a public place, law may be the last thing that comes to mind. However, ideas about law, both conscious and unconscious, shape how people make sense of such interactions, what types of speech they consider problematic, and what remedies or responses they believe are possible. Examining the links between people's experiences with street harassment and their attitudes about its legal regulation can shed light on the roots and consequences of the "legal consciousness" of different social groups.

In this article I analyze the legal consciousness of ordinary citizens by examining how experiences with and legal attitudes toward offensive public speech vary by race, gender, and class. I find that white women and people of color experience dramatically higher levels of offensive public speech and that these experiences significantly affect their daily lives. Yet experiencing harms from offensive public speech does not translate into supporting its legal regulation. Subjects offer a variety of reasons to justify their opposition to the legal regulation of such speech. Members of different racial and gender groups articulate distinctive discourses about offensive public speech and the law that invoke various and competing schemas regarding law. These understandings reflect their prior experiences with the law and their attitudes about the prospects for social change through law. This variation suggests that an explicit comparison of particular legal phenomenon across categories of race, gender, and class provide a more nuanced understanding of legal consciousness.

II. Prior Approaches to Offensive Public Speech

Racist and sexist speech generate much debate about the proper balance between freedom of speech and protection of historically disadvantaged groups from verbal abuse. First Amendment absolutists argue that speech cannot and should not be legally restricted (Post 1991). Critical race theorists argue that racist speech results in substantial harms for its victims (Matsuda 1993), perpetuates inequality, and must therefore be legally limited to realize the equality guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (Lawrence 1990). Cultural theorists contemplate how the performative aspects of speech translate into harms (Butler 1997).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Situating Legal Consciousness: Experiences and Attitudes of Ordinary Citizens about Law and Street Harassment
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?