Swearing in Public is Against the Law (Really)

by The FindLaw Team

In a day and age where swearing has become so commonplace, that most people wouldn’t even flinch when someone drops a swear word, it’s remarkable to think that Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria all have laws regulating offensive language. The issue has received some prominence lately when a football player fronted court for offensive language. So if someone is about to go on a verbal blue streak in public, be careful, you may be in breach of the law.

What is a summary offence?

A summary offence is not indictable, meaning there is no jury, and the case is heard by a judge or magistrate. Most summary offences relate to public nuisance, covering a range of offences such as: vandalism, begging, flag burning, and even interfering with homing pigeons. Summary offences in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria are broad, and quite surprising what is considered an offence, such as swearing.

Offensive language laws in Australia

Queensland (Summary Offences Act 2005 s 6), New South Wales (Summary Offences Act 1988 s 4) and Victoria (Summary Offences Act 1966 s 17) all have laws that cover offensive language in public. The offensive language provisions in both Queensland and Victoria may result in imprisonment for up to six months. However, it should be noted that in Victoria, the third such instance of use of offensive language may result in the maximum of six months imprisonment.

Not only are the penalties for offensive language similar in Queensland and Victoria, but the definitions as well. Generally speaking, offensive language is considered as:

• disorderly
• offensive
• threatening
• indecent, and
• violent

In New South Wales, the law just states that offensive language shall not be used within hearing distance of a public place, or a school. Case law in both New South Wales and Victoria has ruled that it’s not necessary that an individual was in the vicinity to hear the offensive language in question. The law takes into account the possibility that members of the public may be able to hear the offensive language because the act was committed in a public place. A defence is made in New South Wales if an individual satisfies the court that they had a reasonable excuse to behave in such a manner.

Sure, we may be living in an era where swearing doesn’t have the same impact that it did in the past, it still doesn’t mean that an individual is not breaking the law. Remember, to seek assistance if you’re ever in legal trouble or you’ll end up swearing for another reason.



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