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Harassment refers to a wide spectrum of offensive behavior. When the term is used in a legal sense it refers to behaviours that are found threatening or disturbing, and beyond those that are sanctioned by society. In societies which support free speech, only the more repetitive, persistent and untruthful types of speech qualify legally as harassment. Sexual harassment refers to persistent and unwanted sexual advances, typically in the workplace, where the consequences of refusing are potentially very disadvantaging to the victim.
In 1964, the United States Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination at work on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and sex. This later became the legal basis for early harassment law. The practice of developing workplace guidelines prohibiting harassment was pioneered in 1969, when the U.S. Department of Defense drafted a Human Goals Charter, establishing a policy of equal respect for both sexes. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986): the U.S. Supreme Court recognized harassment suits against employers for promoting a sexually hostile work environment. In 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush signed a law which prohibited the transmission of annoying messages over the internet without disclosing the sender's true identity.
Both because the term is used in common English, and because where the term is defined by law, the law varies by jurisdiction, it is difficult to provide any exact definition that is accepted everywhere. In some cultures, for instance, simply stating a political opinion can be seen as unwarranted and a deliberate attempt to intimidate - in a totalitarian society any such statement could be interpreted as an attempt to involve someone in rebel activity or implicate them in same, with the implication that if they refuse, they are putting their own life in danger. More usually, some label such as "anti-social" or related to treason is used to label such behaviour - it being treated as an offense against the state not the person. This resembles the use of psychiatry to imprison dissidents which is common in many countries. Another example is that under some versions of Islamic Law merely insulting Islam is considered to be a harassment of all believers, and in Japan insulting any faith is usually considered taboo, and has legal sanctions. Because of these variations, there is no way even within one society to provide a truly neutral definition of harassment.