Does Free Speech Enable Street Harassment?

Freddi Mitchell

What is considered to be protected as free speech in the United States versus what is not is a controversial topic. The first amendment of the United States Constitution is clear: there should be no law “abridging the freedom of speech.” This amendment has been interpreted differently by groups across the nation, and street harassment in relation to its legality under the first amendment is one of the debated issues. As a teenage girl who has had experiences with street harassment, I can see why there is a want for catcalling to be illegal, but despite my personal desire, I have to sympathize with the Constitution on this matter. Yes, the First Amendment enables street harassment, but putting laws in place to combat it is the wrong approach to solving the problem.   

What do we categorize as catcalling? Are we moving in a direction where we need to regulate our mistakes rather than become more sensitive to the impact our words? “As protected under the Constitution, we have the right, however moronic, to say what we’d like,” wrote Maureen Sherry in a 2017 Fortune Magazine op-ed on why there should not be laws prohibiting street harassment. While I do not agree with her thought that every “moronic” statement is protected under the Constitution, I do agree with her overall argument on why catcalling laws would be devastating to our right of free speech.

As a country, it seems like everyday we realize that something someone said years ago is not acceptable to say in society today. Although some say this makes us “soft,” in many ways having a conversation about the changing culture of words is positive. It is beneficial for these conversations to happen about street harassment in particular. If we cannot constitutionally get rid of catcalling, we must take action by shifting the norms of society on this topic. Educating kids to act with manners, kindness, and good values is one way of combating this. In the #MeToo era, women have begun to speak out about their experiences like never before. We have shown the power that women have in shifting the culture around sexual harassment and assault. Why don’t we continue to use our influence to end street harassment for good without limiting the free speech we are given?                     

Whether we like it or not, it is undeniable that we have to stand by the Constitution, but we also have to stand by each other. Women and men have to deal with derogatory words being shouted at them on the street daily. The fact that it is still somewhat culturally acceptable to catcall is shameful, and it takes all of us to change this culture.  

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