Just Words: Speech and the Constitution of Harm


ACLS Fellowship Program




Speech can constitute (and not merely cause) harm. Speech constitutes harm when it enacts norms that prescribe harmful actions. Suppose, for example, that a CEO enacts a discriminatory hiring policy by saying, “From now on we do not hire women.” This utterance constitutes the harm of discrimination because it enacts a company policy prescribing a discriminatory hiring practice. In this case, the policy is enacted via an exercise of speaker authority. Just Words argues that there is another, non-authoritative, ubiquitous, and yet hidden manner in which speech enacts norms. Identifying this mechanism highlights important but previously overlooked potential constitutive connections between speech and harm. This project investigates the social, moral, political, and legal consequences of this phenomenon; explores contested categories of speech (such as pornography and racist hate speech); and presents ways to remedy the harms in question.