Swearing in Public in Victoria? It May Cost You
by The FindLaw Team
We here at FindLaw have highlighted that Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria has made it an offence to swear in public. However, our interest was piqued once more with news that Victoria is on the verge of passing a law that will allow police officers to issue a potty mouthed perpetrator, with on-the-spot fines of up to $240, if they are caught using language that is deemed to be: disorderly, offensive, threatening and violent.
What is a public place?
The more appropriate question is perhaps: what isn’t a public place? Section 17 of Victoria’s Summary Act defines a ‘public place’ as (take a deep breath if you are reading this out loud):
- highways, bridges, footways, footpaths, courts, alleys or thoroughfares that is not on private property (forget about letting off steam on the highway after someone has cut you off)
- parks, gardens, reserves or any place of recreation or resort (if you’re stung by a bee, hold your tongue)
- wharfs, piers, a jetty, passenger ships or boats for hire (sailors, lookout!)
- churches or chapels that are open to the public or where divine services are being publicly held (does blasphemy count?)
- Government schools or lands
- public halls, theatres, rooms while members of the public are in attendance, assembling, or departing from a public place of entertainment, or where a meeting is conducted (the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, anyone?)
- markets, or venues where an auction is held
- licensed premises where alcohol is sold (no comment)
- racecourses, cricket and football grounds (no more abusing umpires)
- any open spaces (i.e. everywhere).
The proposed Victorian law allows a police officer to use their discretion in issuing fines. Allowing officers to use their own judgement, may potentially give rise to a situation where one police officer might view the language being used as not offensive, but a different police officer, under the same circumstances might decide that the behaviour does breach the Act, and issue a person with the fine. Furthermore, the proposed law would make swearing in public a strict liability offence, which means that a person is judged to be guilty if they commit the offending action.
What is considered offensive language?
Swearing has become so commonplace now that most people won’t even raise an eyebrow when someone does drop the ‘f-bomb’. The evolving standard of offensive language was considered in Police v Butler in the Local Court of New South Wales. The presiding magistrate observed that words that would be considered legally offensive in the past, change over time reflecting acceptable community norms. The magistrate added that swearing may offend the “standards of good taste or manners which is a breach of the rules of courtesy and runs contrary to accepted social rules,” but this does not mean that a reasonable person might be ordinarily offended in a modern context.
In summary, Australians may be more relaxed about swearing in public, but readers should probably still keep in mind that swearing in public in Victoria might soon become an expensive proposition.