Compliant Usage of Non Threatening Speech…Australian laws against strong language in public

Posted: 24 May, 2014 in world
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Australia flag Last week, Australians were asking whether education minister, Christopher Pyne, called opposition leader Bill Shorten a ‘cunt’ in parliament. Pyne insisted he said grub . Pyne will not be prosecuted for the alleged use of the word. But each year, thousands of Australians are charged every year so face hefty fines, and even imprisonment, for swearing.

Laws across Australia criminalise the use of supposedly offensive, obscene, indecent or abusive language in, or within hearing distance of, a public place. In Pyne’s home state of South Australia, the use of abusive or insulting language in public can warrant a fine of up to $1,250 or three months’ imprisonment.

From 31 March this year, New South Wales police have been able to issue $500 on the spot fines for offensive language in public. On the spot fines can also be issued in Victoria and Queensland, and in those states, people caught using obscene or abusive words can receive a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment.

Offensive language charges are much more common than you’d think. Last year, NSW police recorded more than 4,000 ‘offensive’ language incidents. The law gives police tremendous discretion, with the leading 1959 case Worcester v Smith defining offensive as:

Such as is calculated to wound the feelings, arouse anger or resentment or disgust or outrage in the mind of a reasonable person.

So how does a judge determine whether certain words, in certain spaces are offensive?  In offensive language cases, judges tend to rehash archaic stereotypes about language and place. An example of this is the NSW supreme court case of McCormack v Langham, where the court stated that:

What might pass as inoffensive language if exchanged between footballers in an all male environment in a dressing room after a match might well offend if repeated in mixed company in a church fete .

In another case from the same year, we are informed that:

Conduct and language engaged in at a football match or on a tennis or squash court may be acceptable, or, at least, unremarkable, but offensive if engaged in during a church service or a formal social event.

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