An increase in fines for swearing in public under the NSW government's legislation to tackle alcohol-fuelled violence is making critics say: ''What the …?''
Police officers will soon be able to issue on-the-spot fines of up to $500 to anyone who uses offensive language, more than triple the current penalty of $150, although, if you are on the train and fined by a Transit Officer, the penalty can be $400.
The $500 fine is the highest on-the-spot penalty for swearing in Australia. Police in Victoria can issue $240 fines, and in Queensland swearing will cost just $100.
But critics such as solicitor Jane Sanders at the free legal service The Shopfront Youth Legal Centre believes swearing is part of the vernacular and such laws unfairly target minority groups such as Aborigines and young people.
''We definitely would agree that the offence should be done away with altogether,'' she said. ''Increasing the penalties is not going to deter people from behaving in this way.''
Police Association of NSW president Scott Webber says police welcome the higher fines, but acknowledges the interpretation of offensive language is subjective and a ''nightmare'' to patrol.
While there is no official ''swear list'', he says fines are usually issued when the F and C words are used aggressively, and in a public space such as near a school, a main street or in a park.
Swearing has been illegal in NSW since 2007 and is frequently part of the trifecta of infringement notices: the original offence, offensive language and offensive conduct.
NSW courts have been reluctant to issue convictions over swearing. In 2010, magistrate Pat O'Shane memorably ruled that calling police officers ''f---ing pigs'' was not offensive.
But on-the-spot fines mean most incidents do not make it to court.
The latest report from Bureau of Crime Statistics records 4289 offensive language crimes in the 12 months leading up to September last year, down by 10 per cent on the previous year.
The NSW Law Reform Commission was inclined to abolish offensive language offences in 2012 and recommended the government investigate doing so.
A spokeswoman for Attorney-General Greg Smith, SC, says the government does not believe an inquiry is warranted.
''People have the right to use public places free from verbal abuse,'' she said. ''The job of police is difficult enough without having to put up with offensive language by anyone, including people intoxicated by drugs and alcohol.''
When he introduced the legislation last week, Premier Barry O'Farrell said the increased fines are ''a sufficient amount to act as a deterrent for this unacceptable behaviour''.