Ain't no Hollaback girl: The problem with legally banning street harassment


The New York Times launched a discussion on its website Friday asking, "Should current laws dealing with harassment be strengthened to include catcalling, or will that go too far in trying to control speech and behavior?" The debate ignited after the anti-street harassment nonprofit, Hollaback released a video last Tuesday entitled, "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman." When I first watched the video, it definitely stirred feelings of sympathy and indignation, but it is crucial to note that the question at hand is not whether or not catcalling is wrong, but whether legal action should be taken to prevent such speech.

Associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University, Laura Beth Nielsen, was one of four contributors to offer an opinion on the subject. She is the author of the book, License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speechwhich explores the topic of "offensive street speech," and asks whether legally barring racist and sexist speech would be in accordance with the Constitution.

"I'd propose a law that would prohibit street harassment and would also be consistent with our First Amendment jurisprudence about other kinds of hate speech..." Nielsen said in her Times opinion piece.

According to Nielson, violation of the law could be treated as a tort, punishable by a fine, or a misdemeanor. Nielson stresses what she calls the "symbolism" of such legislation and its potential to promote social equality.

As a woman who lives in New York City, and as an American, I say that this type of legislation should not be considered. The use of legal means to regulate catcalling reflects flagrant disregard for the First Amendment. It is a slap in the face of our Constitution.

Catcalling is obnoxious, but it is not as repugnant as Neilsen's proposal. For one, this ban would be nearly impossible to enforce, considering the scope of the problem, as depicted in the Hollaback video. The biggest qualm I find, however, is that such legislation would fail to address the wider social problems implicated in its passage.

Hollaback's vision, as expressed on their website, reads: "We envision a world where street harassment is not tolerated and where we all enjoy equal access to public spaces."

And what a wonderful world that would be. But that, again, is not the point of contention. The issue up for debate is one concerning a specific type of speech (i.e. catcalling). Threatening gestures, stalking and unwanted touching are not protected under the First Amendment, and states have laws regulating such conduct.

Additional legislation is not the solution to the very real problem of street harassment. I say additional because I believe that the protection we desire is already provided for, to its greatest extent, by the Constitution. If we as a nation wish to experience a culture that respects people of every race, gender and religion, there are steps that we as citizens must take. The question is, are we prepared to take those steps?

Are we so committed to upholding the dignity of our fellow Americans that we would object to racial slurs in the music we listen to, take a stand against the porn industry, refuse to participate in the derogation of others and encourage our peers to do the same? Are we as a society prepared to venerate what is good and outwardly denounce evil, or are we relying too greatly on legislative policies to fight on our behalf?

I'm not so idealistic as to think that these problems can be fully resolved, with or without legislation, but I see no problem in identifying where the responsibility for change falls, and more importantly, where it does not.