It was the slap heard around the world. When Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's shaved head during the telecast of the 94th Oscars ceremony March 27, it elicited an eye roll from her and a much more heated reaction from her husband Will. He approached the stage, slapped Rock in the face and then told Rock, "Keep my wife's name out of your ****ing mouth!" Rock didn't retaliate physically nor did he press charges later, CNN reported. Reaction on social media was split between those who applauded Will for defending Jada (who has alopecia) and those who thought he was out of order for his attack on Rock.
Face-punching in movies and TV shows is a well-known cliché. But in real life, clocking someone is not only a great way to break your hand, but also in the majority of cases, illegal. Is there ever a situation in which you are legally justified to pop someone in their mug?
In 2017, we took the question to Micah Schwartzbach, a California criminal defense lawyer and managing editor at Nolo. In short, the answer is "yes" — but the punch has to be made in self-defense.
"In general, you have to not be the aggressor and you have to reasonably believe that force is necessary to protect yourself from some imminent violence," said Schwartzbach. "And on top of that, you have to use a proportionate amount of force."
There are some really important points for distinguishing between a legal and illegal punch. No.1, you can't strike first. That would make you the aggressor. It's hard to argue self-defense when you're literally on the attack.
Second, you can only punch someone if they've already taken a swing at you, or if you believe you're about to be hit. Schwartzbach said that it's also possible to claim self-defense if you punch your attacker while he's winding up to smack you, but you'd need some fast hands.
And third, you can't escalate the fight. If the drunk guy at the bar doesn't like the way you're looking at his girlfriend (yes, another cliché) and shoves you on the shoulder, you're not justified to break a bottle over his head. You're probably not even justified to punch him. Or slap him. Or kick him in the goodies.
"Self-defense applies where the harm is imminent," Schwartzbach explained. "The theory is that you don't have an alternative." The same is true if you're coming to the defense of another person. If you reasonably believe that they're in imminent danger of violence and you have no other alternative, you can step in and start punching.