Words, Wounds, and Relationships: a Mixed-Method Study of Free Speech and Harm in High-Conflict Environments Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Fuller, Preston
    • Affiliation: Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Mass Communication Graduate Program
  • This dissertation is a mixed-method, socio-legal study of First Amendment issues and social practices surrounding free expression and harm in high-conflict speech environments, such as ongoing political protests. Scholarly literature and case law on harmful speech makes clear that context is crucial for courts to understand the relative harms and values associated with speech in such environments. The outcome of a court’s contextual analysis can profoundly impact the outcome of a case involving allegedly harmful speech that falls at the borderlines of First Amendment protection. However, American courts have not articulated clear frameworks for conducting contextual analysis. Thus, lower courts have used an array of contextual factors, often implicitly and in ways that fail to grasp aspects of context that are critical for participants who engage daily in persistent, heated ideological debate in high-conflict environments. Using legal analysis and ethnographic field methods, this dissertation studies how courts conduct contextual analysis in true threats and incitement cases and how participants who engage daily in pro-and-anti-abortion advocacy at a local clinic use context to determine whether and to what extent speech causes harm. The findings in this dissertation reveal that courts and participants frame important aspects of context and harm in dramatically different ways. The apparent gaps between courts’ collective knowledge and the social knowledge of participants have important implications for how courts might choose to conduct contextual analysis and consider harm in true threats and incitement cases in the future. Based on a comparative analysis of the cases and the ethnographic findings, this dissertation proposes that courts adopt a contextual analysis framework that considers the following non-exhaustive list of contextual factors when deciding true threats or incitement cases: 1) the social context surrounding speech (particularly the relationship between the parties and the speaker’s intent); 2) speech’s historical context; 3) the medium of expression; and 4) the speech’s linguistic context. This dissertation concludes that the proposed framework would provide clarity and rigor to contextual analysis, which is crucial in all cases in which courts must work to determine whether speech loses First Amendment protection because of the harms it may cause.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Hoefges, R. Michael
  • Marshall, William
  • Ekstrand, Victoria
  • Packer, Cathy Lee
  • Noblit, George W.
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2017

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