Expensive words: the true cost of offence

Subeta Vimalrajah examines the effects of increased sanctions for offensive language crimes.


$500 could buy you 185 regular-sized Taste coffees (with Access) or 0.840 Hermes scarves, or perhaps you could use it to pay off a fine for saying “fuck you cunt” at the local library.

As if Barry O’Farrell wasn’t draconian enough with his response to the “king hit” fiasco, changes to offensive language penalties have been added to the mix. Section 4A (1) of the Summary Offences Act holds that if caught swearing in a public place or near a school, a police officer can issue you an on-the-spot fine. That fine used to be an unjustifiable $150. It is now triple that, amounting to the highest national fine for the offence – double that of Victoria and five times that of Queensland.

As identified by critics, this change will disproportionately affect Indigenous Australians, amongst other minority groups. These groups are always targeted by selective enforcement and over policing (a white male’s “fuck you” sounds very different to that of a person of colour), but offensive language laws raise the bar for inequality.

Current trends show that the two Local Government Areas with the highest incidence rate of offensive language charges, nearly ten times the state average, are Walgett and Bourke. Unsurprisingly, the Indigenous population is 30 per cent in these areas, accompanied by high poverty levels. The areas with close to no incidence rate are Mosman and Lane Cove with a corresponding 0.1 per cent Indigenous population and average household income thrice that of Bourke.

As these statistics are spouted there is a conservative cry that the poor and Indigenous commit most crime anyway. Not only is the correlation between socio-economic status and offensive language crime more pronounced than broader crime rates, this trend is easily justified by interrogating the nature of language. Policing language is policing morality to protect the sensibilities of the most privileged, as all language is culturally constructed. Offensive language targets the poor and Indigenous because offense at profanity is socially conditioned by one’s education, class and culture.

In the case of Indigenous Australians, the pidgin Aboriginal English places no sanction on swearing, even in communication from child to parent. Such alternate mores are an act of integrated protest in reclaiming the language of the white oppressor, as the terms ‘slut’ and ‘nigger’ have similarly been claimed by women and African Americans. The difference in conditioning applies to those for whom English is a second language. For first generation migrants like myself, taboos toward swearing were only introduced at school. My parents had no swear jar because they would not have known what to punish in the first place.

Given the politics of language, Section 4A always targeted the most vulnerable people in society, as they simply swear more. The now heftier $500 is just a bonus in the game of furthering oppression. It is unfortunate that our politicians are neither diverse nor intelligent enough to recognise the complexities of language. It is even more unfortunate that their laws target the poor and entrench such social conditions through excessive financial penalties.