Even as our potty-mouthed politicians were grabbing all the attention in the final weeks of their campaigns, offensive language was the subject of a legal dispute in Townsville, where a local horticulturalist copped a public-nuisance charge after telling a police officer to “f-ck off”. The court ruled against the charge and the magistrate ordered the police to pay legal costs.
In summing up, he drew attention to the fact that the police are generally immune to such language and the officer in question admitted she was not offended. Meanwhile, Ian Leavers, president of the Queensland Police Union, called for the decision to be appealed as it failed to reflect community standards. In his opinion:
As a father I wouldn’t let my seven-year-old son use this offensive language in the playground and nor would his schoolteachers, yet the courts now say its OK to use offensive language at police in the street, who are just doing their job.
And there you have an eloquent defence of the ruling. Police “doing their job” are required to be in abrasive situations involving high stress and conflict — exactly the kind of environment to expect swearing. Leavers is presumably not acting as a father when he is just doing his job. Nor, one imagines, is he patrolling playgrounds. Again the disingenuous Slippery-Slope Defence collapses under its own overstretched logic.
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It has long been argued that police misuse public-nuisance laws in this way, and clearly there will be situations where the right to claim offence can be exploited by those in a position of authority. The most high-profile case occurred in 2004 on Palm Island, when Mulrunji was arrested for swearing and died shortly after in a police cell with four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and liver. Somewhat stating the obvious, the coroner argued that he should never have been arrested in the first place.
It’s possible that mother-tongue speakers of indigenous languages — who may not be as attuned to the psychological effects of certain words in Standard Australian English — are particularly vulnerable to this kind of disproportionate response from police in high-stress situations.