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34 Law & Soc'y Rev. 1055 (2000)
Situating Legal Conciousness: Experiences and Attitudes of Ordinary Citizens about Law and Street Harassment

handle is hein.journals/lwsocrw34 and id is 1069 raw text is: 1055

Situating Legal Consciousness:
Experiences and Attitudes of Ordinary Citizens
about Law and Street Harassment
Laura Beth Nielsen
The legal consciousness of ordinary citizens concerning offensive public
speech is a phenomenon whose legal status has been vigorously debated, but
which has received little empirical analysis. Drawing on observations in public
spaces in three northern California communities and in-depth interviews with
100 subjects recruited from these public locations, I analyze variation across
race and gender groups in experiences with offensive public speech and atti-
tudes about how such speech should be dealt with by law. Among these respon-
dents, white women and people of color are far more likely than white men to
report being the targets of offensive public speech. However, white women and
people of color are not significantly more likely than white men to favor its
legal regulation. Respondents generally oppose the legal regulation of offen-
sive public speech, but they employ different discourses to explain why. Sub-
jects' own words suggest four relatively distinct paradigms that emphasize the
First Amendment, autonomy, impracticality, and distrust of authority. Members
of different racial and gender groups tend to use* different discourses. These
differences suggest that the legal consciousness of ordinary citizens is not a
unitary phenomenon, but must be situated in relation to particular types of
laws, particular social hierarchies, and the experiences of different groups with
the law.
[H]ey white bitch, come suck my dick!1
I hate women; they're all sluts.2
Monkey for a dollar!3
You fucking people need to go back where you came from,
I'm sick of this, you come over here and think you can take
everything away from us.4
In addition to the individuals who gave generously of their time to participate in the
interviews, I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of people who aided me in the research
and/or read and commented on earlier drafts, including Catherine (KT) Albiston,
Lauren Edelman, Patricia Ewick, Bryant Garth, Kaaryn Gustafson, Angela Harris, Alva
Hayslip, Michele Landis, Ann Lucas, Kristin Luker, Robert Nelson, Judy Nielsen, Eric
Sorensen, Amy Steigerwalt, and the anonymous reviewers from Law & Society Review.
Brooke Bedrick provided assistance coding the data. Although not directly involved with
this project, Robert Meister always deserves my thanks. Please direct all inquiries to Laura
Beth Nielsen, American Bar Foundation, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, Fourth Floor, Chi-
cago, IL 60611 (e-mail:lnielsen@abfn.org).
I Recounted by a 26-year-old white woman, interview #30.
2 Recounted by a 24-year-old white woman, interview #10.
3 Recounted by an 18-year-old African-American woman, interview #54.
4 Recounted by a 29-year-old African-American woman, interview #29.
Law & Society Review, Volume 34, Number 4 (2000)
© 2000 by The Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.

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