Are the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words obscene? Obscenity and indecency laws in Australia

by The FindLaw Team

In the age of the internet where almost everything can be disseminated, some people may believe that concepts such as obscenity or indecency may be quaint notions that no longer have any currency. However with that being said, questions relating to obscenity and indecency have come before the courts, but as you may imagine, what is considered as obscene or indecent can be rather fluid concepts.

What is obscene and indecent? 

It’s probably fair to assume that trying to define ‘obscene’ or ‘indecent’ can be rather challenging – and you would be correct. Therefore, we should look to case law for some guidance and turn to the judgment of Fullagar J in R v Close [1948] VLR 445 (FC) at 463, where his Honour unravelled the concept of obscenity:

“As soon as one reflects that the word ‘obscene’, as an ordinary English word, has nothing to do with corrupting or depraving susceptible people, and that it is used to describe things which are offensive to current standards of decency and not things which may induce sinful thoughts, it becomes plain, I think, that Cockburn CJ, in the passage quoted from Hicklin (1868) LR 3 QB 360 at 371, was not propounding a logical definition of the word ‘obscene’, but was merely explaining that particular characteristic which was necessary to bring an obscene publication within the law relating to obscene libel. The tendency to deprave is not the characteristic which makes a publication obscene but is the characteristic which makes an obscene publication criminal.”

Obscene language: What about the ‘F’ or ‘C’ bomb?

Swearing has arguably become more acceptable now than it ever has been, therefore, it’s not unusual to hear someone drop an expletive in public. However, can swearing ever be considered as an offence?

In Hortin v Rowbottom (1993) 61 SASR 313; 68 A Crim R 381, Mulligan J remarked that ‘fuck’ isn’t necessarily obscene, and similarly for the word ‘cunt’. In Romeyko v Samuels (1972) 2 SASR 529 (FC), Bray CJ said, “ my view, it is equally erroneous to hold that the common four-letter words are necessarily indecent in every context...and hold to that they can never be indecent at all.” His Honour in Dalton v Bartlett (1972) 3 SASR 549 (FC) also said, “...I would not regard words like this as even offensive, if, though used in a public place, they are used in the course of a friendly conversation and in conversational tones with someone who takes no offence at them, and that whether they are used as intensives or expletives or in their literal significance.”


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