DO OFFENSIVE WORDS HARM PEOPLE?
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
The harm thesis—the assumption that words harm people—is a deﬁning feature of
sexual harassment, hate speech, verbal abuse, and obscene telephone call (OTC)
offenses. This thesis ignores the possibility that swearing can be advantageous,
cathartic, or an acceptable substitute for physical aggression. Observational data,
courtroom evidence and verbal abuse research reviewed here produce conﬂicting
conclusions on the question of harm. The best evidence of harm resides in harass-
ment and OTC studies, but verbal abuse research is indeterminate because of ﬂawed
research methodology. Public swearing research reveals that swearing is a common
conversational practice resulting in no obvious harm. “Common sense” (folk psy-
chology) views of swearing are mistaken and inadequate for some decisions re-
garding harm. Meanwhile, efforts to restrict speech in media and instructional
settings continue, despite the lack of a convincing need to do so. Harm from
offensive speech is contextually determined; therefore attempts to restrict speech on
a universal basis are misguided. Psychologists’ research needs to be informed by
public policy and courtroom practices, and public policy and litigation need to be
better informed by psychologists’ research.
Keywords: verbal abuse, swearing, indecent speech, hate speech, sexual harassment
Legal scholars advance a harm thesis, that offensive utterances harm people
the same way that physical blows do (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw,
1993). Offensive words comprise, but are not limited to, categories of obscenity,
indecency, profanity, racial insults, taboos, and scatology (see Jay, 1992). My
focus on harm from offensive words is based on their problematic emotive and
aversive properties associated with psychological reactance and memorability
(Jay, Caldwell-Harris, & King, 2008; Jay, King, & Duncan, 2006). These are the
types of words that should cause harm. In contrast, civil libertarians argue that
words do not cause harm because speech is abstract or symbolic, not at all like
physical blows (Heins, 2007; Strossen, 1995; Wolfson, 1997). These opposing
views raise the question: When do offensive words harm people? This is a review
of legal and psychological perspectives on harm covering research that supports
the harm thesis (e.g., sexual harassment, hate speech, obscene telephone calls
[OTCs]) and research that is indeterminate (verbal abuse). Harm research is then
contrasted with research that provides no evidence of harm (e.g., conversational
swearing, sexuality education, broadcast indecency, humor). Inoffensive words
associated with harm, such as defamation (including both libel and slander), fraud,
and perjury are not reviewed. Recommendations to improve public policy and
litigation regarding offensive speech and suggestions to improve research meth-
ods are offered.
I thank April Tovani and Brendan Gaesser for their library research and contributions to an
earlier version of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Timothy Jay, Department of
Psychology, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 375 Church Street, North Adams, MA 01247.
Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
2009, Vol. 15, No. 2, 81–101 © 2009 American Psychological Association
1076-8971/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0015646
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.