Is There a Word/Term for This - Breaking a Law Intentionally

Is there a word or term that sums this up - breaking a law with the specific intention of getting arrested so that you can challenge the law in the courts?

This example isn’t so cut and dry, but there are maybe some elements of this in the Rosa Parks story - she was active in the NAACP, and it was a goal of the organization to fight the bus segregation laws through the court. Although it’s my understanding that she didn’t set out to get arrested THAT DAY, I believe she was aware of the potential for this to unfold in a larger social justice arena.

Rather than focus on Rosa Parks (which isn’t an exact match to what I am talking about anyway), does anyone know if there is a specific word for this particular type of civil disobedience? Or have a more cut and dry example of a person or organization that leveraged a deliberate arrest into the overturning of a law?


Test case. Plessy v. Ferguson was an example; Homer Plessy intentionally boarded a whites only car at the behest of an organization dedicated to challenging the Louisiana law requiring separate rail cars for whites and blacks, and his arrest was planned and orchestrated as a test case.

By the time it gets to a lawyer, we would call it a “test case.”

Excellent, thanks. Test case, who knew it would be plain English words that are obvious and easy to understand? :slight_smile:

Trivia note: By modern standards, Homer Plessy would be considered white. He had one black great-grandparent. He had to tell the conductor he was “black” in order to get arrested.

A test case is what can occur when the meaning of the law, as applied to a particular situation, is unclear, and a court acts to clarify it. If the decision goes your way, it may turn out that you never really broke the law at all. However, if the law is clear, but you consider it to be a bad law, it will normally be fruitless (and dangerous) to try to challenge it in court. The place to challenge it is in the relevant legislature, and the “court” of public opinion.

That, of course, is what was really going on in the Rosa Parks (and Plessy) case. She had no hope (and no expectation) of prevailing in court, but the publicity generated by her case, and the injustice of the law that it made manifest, played a significant role in shifting public opinion such that the relevant law (and others like it) eventually got changed by the relevant legislatures.

“Civil disobedience” comes closer to what the OP asks for. Breaking the law may result in a test case, but is not the test case itself.

Yeah, I’d probably use “civil disobedience” for Rosa Parks. She sparked the protests but when they went searching for a test case to challenge the bus segregation law they decided against including Rosa Parks due to procedural issues and found other plaintiffs (most, if not all, of whom had been arrested for refusing to give up a seat before Parks) to use for the test case.

Yeah, I’m wondering if I’m trying to find a term (that might not exist) somewhere between the two.

For some context, I started thinking about this when a friend of mine was on a rant about a law that he doesn’t agree with. It’s pretty minor and doesn’t directly impact him in any way. I was tempted to say something along the lines of “come on, is this REALLY the law you’re willing to go Plessy v. Ferguson on?”

Only I couldn’t say that, because until pravnik mentioned it in this thread, I didn’t have a good example of challenging a law through the process of getting arrested for it. “Civil disobedience” still seems too broad, because maybe you won’t get arrested, and then what happens to your challenge?

The word the OP is looking is “malice”. Check the second definition from here: Malice Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster

John Scopes was convinced to do this to challenge the Tennessee law on teaching evolution. Clarence Darrow asked Judge Ralston for a directed verdict of guilty so it wouldn’t come out that Scopes never actually taught that lesson.

No. Malice is the intent to cause harm without justification, not the breaking of a law for the purpose of challenging it.

Well, this information would have been perfect for my riposte. “Really? Is this the law that you want to turn into your own personal Monkey Trial? IS IT?”

In a just world, this will somehow come up in conversation again, and I will be prepared.