What is Incitement?

Felicia Dye
Felicia Dye
Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Incitement is a crime that occurs when one person tries to motivate another to commit an offense. There are several ways that this may be done, including through inflammatory speeches and by using threats. The list of offenses that a person can be incited to commit is even longer, including acts such as terrorist attacks, rape, and theft. It should be understood that a person can be convicted of inciting others even if those individuals do not actually commit crimes.

At least two people must be involved for incitement to occur, the one who does the encouraging and the one who is encouraged. This does not mean that the crime is limited to such small numbers. Incitement can occur on massive scales. Inflammatory rallies or the distribution of instigating written materials are examples of how this is possible.

A person can be found guilty of incitement whether or not another crime is committed. Say, for example, that Jim encourages his wife, Becky, to place a bomb in a train station. If Becky does it, Jim is likely to be charged with a more serious offense, but it is possible that he could be charged with inciting a criminal act. Even if Becky does not set up the bomb, Jim may be found guilty because he put forth effort to try to get her to do it. The manner in which this is handled tends to vary from one jurisdiction to another and sometimes even within a jurisdiction.

In law, an idea, even when verbalized, is generally not enough to constitute a crime. A person can say that it would be nice if a building blew up. It is only once that individual has taken some action toward making the idea a reality that a crime occurs. For this reason, many people find it difficult to understand incitement from a legal perspective.

A person can be encouraged to commit a crime in a positive way, such as by having rewards promised to him, or a person can be motivated by fear. In either case, the logic for prosecuting the motivating party is that he did harm by creating risk. The fact that he attempted to get someone to commit a crime is considered sufficient action toward realizing an idea.

There is also some debate with regard to the role that freedom of speech should play when considering incitement. Many governments have determined that there are certain expressions that constitutional rights should not cover. Words that incite others to commit crimes are among them.

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Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- It was established a long time ago that freedom of speech does not mean you have the right to say anything you want. For example, we don't allow people to yell "fire" in a crowded theater because people will trample each other trying to escape and that kind of speech does nothing but disrupt the peace and tranquility we all want to enjoy. That kind of speech does nothing but injure society so we don't protect it.

We don't protect speech that incites people to riot, either.


@Terrificli -- I understand what you are saying and see the need for such laws. However, I have a real problem with the whole thing being taken too far. Is there a case when charging someone with incitement can take away someone's free speech rights?

Remember that we do have the right to free speech. If someone does get a crowd made enough to riot, that is unfortunate. But should we really crack down on freedom of speech so much that people are afraid to say anything?


Perhaps the most common way we have heard about that is when someone is accused of inciting a riot. That can be done through aggressive actions, speeches or anything else calculated to get a bunch of people to go nuts and start breaking stuff and burning things.

That is precisely why inciting a riot is often treated as a crime. Riots are responsible for injuries, property damages and all sorts of mayhem, so it is no wonder people who push people to engage in them wind up in trouble with the authorities.

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