Say someone purposely provokes another person by insulting him, knowing that this person is easily provoked.

The provoked person then hits him.

Can the person then report a crime or even file a civil lawsuit on his assaulter, all in the aim of getting that person behind bars?

  • 12
    Imprisonment is not an available remedy in a civil lawsuit.
    – JBentley
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 10:28
  • 2
    It is possible to do, it would often not be successful. I suspect that the question really intended is whether provocation is an affirmative defense to battery, which varies by jurisdiction.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 1:50
  • 9
    Needs a location tag, obviously laws vary considerably between locations.
    – Kat
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 2:56
  • 1
    If you provoke someone to kill you then yes that person will be locked up. However, you'll be off the hook even if you used hate speech.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 14:20
  • 1
    If you meant exactly what you Posted - "Can a person purposely provoke someone… then report a crime" - the Answer would prolly be no, depending on jurisdiction. Since the devil is in the details, are the original words all that matters or are there other factors? Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 1:18

4 Answers 4


People hurling abuse at one another and starting fights happens absolutely all the time, especially when drink has been taken, and will be a regular part of police business.

In the UK, potentially both parties can be prosecuted; the Public Order Act prohibits "abusive or threatening words or behaviour". It specifically prohibits provocation: "to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another". However, because it's the public order act it only applies in public places and not in houses.

  • 7
    All the offences in Part 1 of the Public Order Act 1986 can be committed in either a public or private place. There are exceptions at s.4 (conduct carried out in a dwelling and no-one else is present) s.4A and s.5 (both parties are within a dwelling). legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1986/64/contents
    – user35069
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 11:14
  • I think that given the note about public order law applying in public place, you might want to talk about domestic violence laws. I can imagine a scenario where a wife insults her husband to provoke him into hitting her, so that she can call the police on him for domestic violence.
    – nick012000
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 5:52

It is legal to insult a person (at least in the US: it's a crime in Indonesia). It is legal to report a crime. It is therefore legal to insult a person and report the ensuing crime. The law assumes that a person has enough self-control that they will not commit a crime when insulted. A person who hurls the insult might be found contributorily negligent, which could reduce the assailant's liability or even eliminate it, depending on the state.

  • 4
    “or even eliminate it, depending on the state” — Could you please cite some statutes? Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 5:01
  • 20
    If my culpability for throat chopping a rude little ***** is somehow eliminated then I want to have the quotes to back it up to the judge Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 6:14
  • 14
    – Davor
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 9:56
  • 3
    @user31389 Fighting words are those that "by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." So, essentially a call to imminent and specific lawless action. However, while the supreme court keeps asserting that "fighting words" can be regulated, no set of language that has come before them in the past half-century has actually constituted fighting words. So, unclear what language would actually qualify.
    – fectin
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 15:22
  • 8
    This answer's logic is invalid. The fact that two things are individually legal does not mean that they are legal to do in combination. For example, it is legal to get drunk, and it is legal to drive motor vehicles, but it is illegal to do both at the same time. Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 14:28

Just broadly speaking, the law doesn't operate in black and white.

If you act in a manner that encourages somebody to strike you (especially with the ultimate intention to get them to do so), that is certainly a factor the judge would look at when deciding punishment. So you may just end up with a broken nose, and they may just have to pay a nominal fine.

Also, without knowing what your jurisdiction is, it's almost certainly the case, that suing them will not result them going to jail.

  • 17
    One famous tennis player was found guilty and given a £1 fine for smashing the camera of a paparazzi, with no damages to pay.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 13:11

It depends on the jurisdiction. pjc50 has given a link to the law in the UK. In the USA, what you are talking about is known legally as "fighting words."

The US Supreme Court has recognized that some speech is so offensive that it has no First Amendment protection. Such "fighting words" "by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

This doctrine, and successive decisions upholding it, have been criticized because it limits the apparently absolute protection of speech in the First Amendment. Here is an exhaustive discussion of that idea.

In some states, an immediate retaliation, in the form of a punch to the face (the "Fist Amendment"), was once viewed as fair. At least, the police and other authorities recognized that there was little chance of an insulted person who delivered violence in return being convicted by a jury. This was enforced unfairly, of course, according to the prejudices of local law enforcement.

That is no longer the case anywhere in the US. The "fighting words" are disorderly conduct, and a punch in return is a battery. The police will arrest both of you, or if there is no serious physical harm, more likely suggest you call it a night and sober up.

A civil suit by either party is a possibility, and will inevitably result in a countersuit. Neither person can go to jail for losing a civil suit, no lawyer should get involved in such a suit, and a sensible judge will tell the parties that nobody wins, so shake hands.

  • Aside from the original mention in Chaplinskey v. New Hampshire, which said "Fighting Words" are not protected, there has been no SCOTUS case re Fighting Words which establish a legal definintion of what it is, but rather what it is not. There are even some legal scholars who will argue that the constraints of Fighting Word Doctrine have essentially made it not a thing any longer.
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 14:32
  • Somewhat true, however, police will [link]{freedomforuminstitute.org/2015/01/21/…) arrest people for "disorderly conduct" for extended and profane speech. There are other recent examples.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 20:44
  • The case referenced there apparently mentions a "recent" Supreme Court decision. As for actually defining "fighting words" that is a job for the legislature, should they decide to try. Otherwise, it's decided by courts on a case-by-case basis.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 20:49
  • @hszmv - How likely is such a case to go to SCOTUS though? I know of at least one instance of a Judge in rural Oklahoma invoking the doctrine for words exchanged between lawyers in his courtroom a year or two ago. So "fighting words" is (admittedly anecdotally) A Thing in the US.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 14:39
  • @T.E.D. The Cases I found via Wikipedia article "Fighting Words" are "Street v. New York", "Cohen v. California," "Gooding v. Wilson," "Rosenfield v. New Jersey," "Lewis v. New Orleans," "Brown v. Oklahoma," "Collin v. Smith," "R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul," and "Virginia v. Black." "Snyder v. Phelps" is the only possible example of SCOTUS possibly agreeing that language was fighting words, but this was in the dissent and the majority opinion did not broach this subject of First Amendment issues as they were satisfied with the laws as they were stated regarding funeral protests+
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 12:46

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .