Can you really say anything to somebody and they can't 'legally' hit back?

Without hijacking another thread…

Someone said that they could stand in front of you and say ANYTHING to you and you were not allowed to ‘legally’ strike back. I wish to define ‘legally’ as not likely to go to jail or likely to suffer civil penalties (not that you won’t be sued/put on trial but that you would likely win).

I am not a lawyer but it seems to me that one couldn’t say ANYTHING. There has to be a line able to be crossed that is so inflammatory that one is allowed to start swinging fists. I’m not talking about just getting angry here but more extreme.

Looking for a General Questions answer here, not what is morally right etc etc…but legally.

I’d assume that, legally, the only thing somebody could say that would justify a violent reaction would be a direct, immediate physical threat. And, even then, it would probably depend on jurisdiction.

I’d wager there’s a bigger range of things that could be said that might be inflammatory enough that a cop wouldn’t bother arresting you for it, provided nobody was really injured in the ensuing fight.

I am not a lawyer, but;

"Under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, “If the victim’s wrongful conduct contributed significantly to provoking the offense behavior, the court may reduce the sentence below the guideline range to reflect the nature and circumstances of the offense.” "

So, not “walk away scot free”, but merely “reduce the sentence”.

Seriously, you (generic you) need to control yourself. If words hurt so bad that you need to strike out physically, then you need to re-examine your relationship with words. Or maybe learn how to use them yourself.

Google “fighting words doctrine” or Chaplinsky v New Hampshire. You will still get arrested for punching the sucker out, but you’ll have a positive defense in court.


That statement certainly qualifies as “anything”. You have a right to defend yourself. You may have to resort to lethal force. Depending on State laws, you may not face criminal charges. Depending on State laws, the person who said they were going to kill you may be able to file a civil suit against you because your actions resulted in their inability to continue their livelyhood (armed robbery?).

So…if I go up to your 12 year old daughter out on the street (you are with her) and I say to her “my you look good…I’m going to find you someday and rape your brains out. I’m going to fuck you so hard you will never be able to fuck again” You don’t think a normal guy wouldn’t lash out?

Dude, I have learned to use words and body language to rather good effect, usually with a smile on my face. Plus I have a cell phone and know how to use it.

If there are no witnesses other than you and your daughter, it becomes “your word against his” and you’re STILL going to be arrested and go on trial for battery.

“He said he’d rape my daughter!”
“He said he’d just claim that I said I’d rape his daughter!”

There’s a lot of caselaw and references out there about “fighting words.” Generally for a serious crime (like aggravated assault or various grades of homicide), if the defendant can demonstrate the victim provoked the incident through “fighting words” or a few other types of action then it can significantly mitigate both the crime the defendant is guilty of and the penalty. In some states it could be the difference between a murder conviction (which can carry a life sentence) and a manslaughter conviction which can sometimes result in as few as a couple of years actual incarceration.

For very minor offenses, like non-felony assault type charges, “fighting words” can essentially result in you ending up with no real punishment.

In many cases words that would qualify as “fighting words” are also in themselves assault (assault doesn’t require physical contact), and thus you might have authorities willing to offer both parties the opportunity to just call it “mutual combat” and move on or they charge both of them.

That may very well be true. It’s also true that he could be arrested for it.

It’s more than legally not allowed, it’s physically impossible. You can’t strike back if you haven’t been struck.

I’m reminded of Buzz Aldrin punching the moon hoaxer who wouldn’t leave him alone. Buzz walked around asking everyone to “Get this guy out of my face” and when he had enough, he decked the guy. The DA refused to press charges.

Well, practically speaking, you can be arrested for pretty much anything that some cop decides you did wrong. In that situation, the fact that the perp threatened “rape” even at a future point in time would allow for reasonable defense of the third party…i.e. your 12 year old daughter.

I’ve said it before about fighting here. It’s an old saying.
Winners go to jail, losers go to the hospital.

It can be difficult to deal with some situations. I was giving one guy the business for making a crude comment about my wife. He just says “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. So I got a stick and beat him with hit it. Then I threw rocks at him.

This bears repetition: ‘Assault’ is the threat of violence, which is why American law recognizes ‘battery’, which requires physical contact of some form, as a separate offense, albeit nearly always tied to assault in the form of ‘assault and battery’. (People nearly always threaten violence before they actually commit a violent act.)

Agreed, but just a minor nitpick in case of a misunderstanding. The threat can be because of an act. It doesn’t have to be verbal. The very act of drawing your fist back is the assault part, and the battery is the physical contact. Nearly all batteries are also assaults. But I supposed that if a crazy guy who you never talked to sucker punched you in the back of the head, he would be guilty of battery only.

I would say the operative words would be CREDIBLE and IMMEDIATE threat. If a person utters a threat, you would be justified in taking physical defensive action if the person was capable of carrrying out the threat, and threatening to do so in a timely manner, and the circumstances would lead a reasonable person to regard the threat as genuine. Courts are often guided by the “reasonable person doctrine”, in which all kinds of evidence can be overlooked if a reasonable person would know better. An example would be the hotel with a sign that says “Free Breakfast”. The reasonable person doctrine would limit the hotel’s obligation to serve breakfast only to hotel guests.

There mere threat of "I am going to . . . " leaves itself open to alternative defensive measures, such as reporting the threat to the proper authorities. or simply walking away.

Fighting words, in the accepted sense, may lessen culpability, true, if one attacks another for uttering them. Depends.
Here is an example of fighting words, which would more likely be self defense, than an act of outrage.

If I am holding a baby and a man walks up and states to my face, “I am taking your child”, even before a move is made, I can deck him. This is known basically as “Preventive/Pre-emptive” self defense. Self defense of another is the same as for yourself. Theory being, If I take the threat seriously, I need not stand by and let him grab the baby, as I may not be able to fight him, as I am little, so by a pre-emptive strike, it may hurt him enough where he can no loner carry through with the threat.

I seriously doubt a Prosecutor will accept the case? Sure it depends I suppose.

The absolute answer is NO, you can not stand in front of anyone and say anything you like, then claim assault if struck first.

BlinkingDuck’s OP, and the post quoted above, imply that the motivation of the attacking party is anger, rather than responding to an immediate threat (“inflammatory,” “getting angry,” “lashing out”.) While responding to a credible threat may be a legitimate defense, punching out someone just because their words made you very angry would be less so. (This is not to say that in some cases, as Buzz Aldrin’s, authorities might decide not to charge someone who was only provoked verbally.)

Depends on if it arrestable in the 1st place, or secondary place. If not, a charge will have to made up, that is, perjury and a 4th AM violation.