At a time when far-right websites are being denied domain names, debate about the limits of free speech may never have been more fierce. And now an Australian court has weighed in with a decision that it is okay to call the nation's former Prime Minister Tony Abbott a c*nt.
In a glorious moment for jurisprudence in Australia, a judge has decided that the word is “inappropriate and in poor taste”, but that using it doesn't necessarily justify a charge of offensive behaviour. District Court Judge Andrew Scotting also ruled that the law in question (the Australian State of New South Wales' Summary Offences Act) makes it a crime to utter the word in some contexts.
Politicians and their views are often subject to criticism in public that can extend to personal denigration.
The accused in the case, a sandwich-board-sloganeer and sometime senatorial candidate named Danny Lim, didn't drop the c-bomb. He merely displayed it on one of the signs he totes around Sydney.
The court agreed that c*nt is what Lim meant when he composed one of his sandwich boards and included the word “C∀NT", which judge Scotting records in his judgement thus:
PEOPLE CAN CHANGE TONY YOU CUNT
LIAR, HEARTLESS, CRUEL
PEACE BE WITH YOU
We believe that the strikethrough attempted here is because Lim used Unicode's inverted A (∀) and the court transcription service couldn't reproduce it.
Whatever the typographical niceties involved, a member of the public took offence at Lim's sign and notified the local constabulary, who packed Lim off to court. Magistrate Lisa Stapleton concurred and Lim was convicted of “behaving in an offensive manner in a public place”, because Lim “by inverting a rounded capital 'A' in the word 'can't' on the front of the sign had referred to the then Prime Minister as a 'c*nt'.”
Lim appealed, using the argument that merely using offensive language is not automatically offensive, and Judge Scotting agreed.
“Politicians and their views are often subject to criticism in public,” his decision reads. “This is an essential and accepted part of any democracy. That criticism can often extend to personal denigration or perhaps even ridicule, but still maintain its essential character as political comment. There is no reason to conclude that the Prime Minister, as the leader of the Federal Government, should be treated any differently to any other person who holds or seeks political office”.
The decision continues: “The front of the sandwich board, at the height of the prosecution case, conveyed no more than a reference to the Prime Minister in derogatory terms.”
While perfectly satisfied that Lim's sandwich board was “inappropriate and in poor taste”, that's not enough to make it offensive to a criminal degree: “I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was offensive”.
As to the application of the Summary Offences Act to the case, the judge is clear: “The word 'using' in Section 4(2) means speaking or uttering offensive language and the appellant has not made out this contention” (emphasis added).
Lim remained confident throughout his legal odyssey, it seems, since last year he applied his Word-Art level typography (and gonzo spelling) to current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull:
After all, as the judge notes, Shakespeare referred to the c-word in Hamlet. What more can we say? ®
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