The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects our rights to free speech, so you can say whatever you would like, right? Not necessarily. There are a few caveats associated with your freedom of expression. Others also have the right to feel safe. Therefore, government officials have the right to step in if your speech incites violence or violates peace. However, the perception of fear varies from person to person. If the words that leave your mouth cause an overly-sensitive individual to fear for his or her life, then are you susceptible to assault charges?
Sticks and Stones
Physical contact may leave lasting, visible marks on a human body. However, words can be just as powerful. The words we use, assisted by body language and voice inflection, can cause powerful emotional reactions in those around us. For this reason, assault charges are not reliant on actual contact, but the feelings provoked in others. Each state defines assault differently. In Illinois, assault is:
- Engaging in conduct that allows someone else to believe that he or she is in danger of a physical attack (battery);
- The victim's fearful response must be reasonable and genuine;
- Any other reasonable person would also be in fear of an immediate battery;
- The verbal attack must intend to cause fear; and
- Behavior and voice inflection must show intent to attack.
Does Sensitivity Matter?