Neighbor harassment is a somewhat broad category of behavior that is usually defined based on two factors: the intent of the person doing the harassing, and the effects of that behavior on others. In most places the term has both a legal definition and a more common understanding. In the law, true harassment is often very difficult to prove. It usually requires a sustained pattern of behavior or speech that is intentionally designed to harm another person or cause some sort of pronounced distress, plus some sort of actual damages that result.
In a neighborhood setting this could include things like repeated damage to property, intentionally violating noise ordinances, trespassing, or putting things like garbage on a specific neighbor’s property; slander and vicious speech to others in the neighborhood or community might also qualify. People often talk about harassment among neighbors more informally, too, which can blur the definition. Simply being a “bad” neighbor — not returning borrowed items, using vulgar language, or being unfriendly — can fall under this label in casual conversation, but these sorts of behaviors don’t usually meet the threshold when thinking about things from a legal perspective.
In most places, “harassment” is a legal term of art that applies to behavior that is sustained, repeated, and targeted. These characteristics usually apply to neighbor harassment, too. As such, the behavior that can be said to constitute this sort of harassment usually has to have been going on for a long time and must be directed specifically at certain people in a neighborhood or residential community. It can be somewhat difficult to put a fixed definition on what exactly constitutes harassment in these settings since so much of it depends on the circumstances. Most of the time, though, it’s behavior that’s more than just annoying — it’s something that actually makes the target feel unsafe, unwelcome, or otherwise vulnerable in and around his home.
Importance of Intent
In most cases the offender’s intent is also essential. If the harm that’s caused isn’t intentional, the law won’t usually consider it to be true harassment. This means that simply being bothered or annoyed by a neighbor’s behavior, even consistent behavior, isn’t usually enough to meet the threshold.
Neighbor harassment isn’t usually something that is illegal, at least not at a specific level. The laws do vary from place to place, of course, but most of the time even true problems between neighbors rarely rise to the level of being illegal. In most cases, the biggest legal question concerns actual damages. In order to have a strong or even a viable case, a party will usually have to prove, in court, that he or she has suffered some sort of definable economic or emotional damage. Monetary loss and property damage are some of the most obvious. On the emotional side of things, simply being annoyed or bothered isn’t usually enough — the harassment typically has to rise to the level of extreme distress, like anxiety or some other diagnosed mental health condition that has been confirmed by a medical expert.
Even if the harassment itself isn’t punishable, affected neighbors often have some legal remedies. Many local authorities and courts will issue no-contact orders and restraining orders that prohibit certain individuals from contacting or even coming close to named others. These take a lot less effort, and certainly cost a lot less, than going to trial or taking an issue to court; in many cases, they can end the problem, too.
Issues of Free Speech
Harassment that centers on speech, like calling a neighbor names or “trashing” his or her reputation in the community, can be especially problematic, particularly in places that put a lot of value on free speech. For the most part, courts agree that an opinion differs from fact, no matter how vicious the opinion. A person can be legally allowed to express an opinion, but misrepresenting facts or lying about facts regarding a neighbor might be considered harassment.
Two of the primary exceptions to free speech are libel and slander, which are types of speech that are typically intended to misrepresent the truth, either in print or speech. It can be very difficult to prove in a court of law that a neighbor has committed either of these sorts of harassment since the legal requirements tend to be really high, but the effects can be very obvious and damaging. For example, if a person tells others in the community that a neighbor cooks diseased food that has been served to others, this can lead to the community shunning the neighbor or could even have an effect on the neighbor's professional life. If these economic and emotional damages can be proved, there may be a case and the law may be able to solve the problem — or at least put a stop to the harmful commentary.