Court Rules It’s OK to Refer to Tony Abbott as a C*#t

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By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Danny Lim is a well-known Sydney activist who can often be seen around town wearing sandwich boards that express colourful political messages. On 29 August, the NSW District Court judgements quashed a conviction of offensive conduct that he’d received in the Local Court in February last year.

Mr Lim was standing near the intersection of New South Head Road and Ocean Street in Edgecliff at around 8.40am on 24 August 2015, when NSW police officers issued him with a fine $500 and a move-on order for offensive conduct.

The officers imposed the penalty and moved Mr Lim on, as he was wearing one of his signature sandwich boards with messages printed on either side, which apparently raised the ire of police.

The front of the sandwich board read:

PEACE SMILE. PEOPLE CAN CHANGE. “TONY YOU CUN’T..” LIAR, HEARTLESS, CRUEL. PEACE BE WITH YOU.

The back read:

“TRICKY LYING TONY YOU C∀N’T SCREW EDUCATION HEALTH, JOBS & THE ENVIRONMENT. CHILDREN’S CHILDREN’S FUTURE. SMILE.

The words that were deemed offensive on both sides of the board can be read as “can’t” with the apostrophe. However,  the prosecution argued in court that by inverting the letter “a” on the front of the sign it was actually referring to then Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as a “cunt”.

“The language used was clearly a play on words,” District Court Judge Andrew Scotting reasoned during Mr Lim’s appeal last week. “If the appellant’s conduct was offensive, contrary to my view, in my view it was only marginally so.”

In the Local Court

Despite a crowdfunding page raising his $500 fine in only 56 minutes back in 2015, Mr Lim elected to challenge the fine in the Local Court.

He appeared in Waverley Local Court early last year and pleaded not guilty to one count of behave in an offensive manner in a public place contrary to section 4(1)section 4(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1988.

The section provides that “a person must not use offensive language in or near, or within hearing from, a public place or a school.” The maximum penalty is a fine of up to $660 and/or 3 months imprisonment.

Magistrate Lisa Stapleton found it a “straightforward case.” Her Honour accepted the impugned word was a play on words. She concluded that any reasonable person would find it offensive to use this word in reference to the prime minister, and found Mr Lim guilty of the offence on 9 February last year.

However, Her Honour did not explain why a reasonable person would be offended and seemed to assume the word was offensive in and of itself. Due to this, Judge Scotting found the magistrate was in error.

In the District Court

Mr Lim’s lawyers argued in the District Court that their client only used offensive language and that the words did not amount to offensive conduct. They further submitted that the political nature of their client’s communication was a reasonable excuse to have used the language.

Judge Scotting pointed out that under section 4(2) of the Summary Offences Act provides that “a person does not conduct himself or herself in an offensive manner as referred to in subsection (1) merely by using offensive language.”

Subsection (3) provides that it is a defence to the charge where a person has a “reasonable excuse” for conducting himself or herself in such a manner.

Meaning of “offensive”

Relying on previous authorities, His Honour noted that for conduct to be offensive, it “must be likely to provoke reactions such as anger, disgust, resentment or outrage” – it “must arouse a significant emotional reaction.”

This reaction must be provoked in a “hypothetical reasonable person,” who, according to case-law, “is reasonably tolerant and understanding and reasonably contemporary in his or her reactions.”

He found that “[t]he use of an offensive word will not be prima facie offensive. Whether or not the language is offensive will depend on the application of an evaluatory standard after due consideration of the circumstances and the context”.

His Honour found that offensiveness should be limited to “the high end of the range that could be considered ‘offensive,’” as the purpose of section 4 is to protect members of the public from such disturbances, especially around schools.

The impugned word

If Mr Lim’s sandwich board had actually used the word “can’t” in place of the impugned word, it wouldn’t have been offensive, the judge remarked. He explained that it was really only the use of can’t with an upside down “u” on the front of the board that had the potential to cause offence.

In accordance with the case-law, His Honour found that the use of the word “cunt” is not always offensive, even when said in public. The judge explained that the word is often used as a derogatory expletive to describe a person of any gender, and when it is used in that sense, it’s not being used for “its literal significance.”

“The impugned word is now more prevalent in everyday language than it has previously been,” His Honour continued. He outlined that it has an ancient English origin and even appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

And in Australia, this word is less offensive than in some other English-speaking countries, including the United States.

The judge also remarked that it’s an accepted part of a democracy that politicians and their views are criticised. “That criticism can often extend to personal denigration or perhaps even ridicule.” He continued that there is no reason why the PM should not be treated like others in office.

“The front of the sandwich board is capable of being construed as being clever or light-hearted and thereby removing or reducing the force of the impugned word,” the judge stated. For these reasons, His Honour was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that a reasonable person would be offended.

Freedom of political communication

Judge Scotting found that even if Mr Lim’s conduct was found to be offensive, an argument could be made that his right to freedom of political communication formed a “reasonable excuse”.

He noted that whilst expressing a political comment, Mr Lim “published a play on words that was capable of being construed offensive.”

The judge said that he was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Lim had committed any offence under section 4 of the Act, and that it was therefore “inappropriate to decide on the issue” [of a reasonable excuse].

Mr Lim’s appeal against conviction was allowed.

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21 Comments

  1. Iamu

    To sum it up they got a left wing judge to overrule the police and the first judge.
    I wonder if that judge Andrew Scotting would be offended if he got called a cunt by Tony Abbott.

  2. NOEL Monro

    I’d prefer to look at the upturned lips of a smiling can’t than tony Abbotts grin any day!

  3. Ally

    Bloody-hell. I don’t think anything could be more Australian than a bloke calling the ex PM a cunt and legally getting away with it!

  4. David

    Iamu … Police just lay charges for a court to decide …a Magistrate has limited jurisdiction when compared to a Judge. in other words, a Judge trumps a Magistrate. 🙂

  5. Ian

    So I guess its OK to call anyone a cunt then.

    Excellent. Because Bill Shorten and his team of misfits are without doubt the biggest bunch of useless cunts to ever collectively walk the planet.

  6. Vikein mouradian

    I was fined $200 for indecent language by the Melbourne magistrates court in 1988 while carrying out my duties as a tram conductor.I had given the tramways exemplary service for over 9.5/years.why is this fair or just?
    S9A6

  7. Geraldine Robertson

    Very telling that in this society, female genitalia represent the worst thing that a person can be called.

  8. Rohit

    Vikein Mouradian, maybe you should have challenged the judgement you received. You chose not to. Lim continued his fight and justice prevailed. It’s that simple. Please re-read the article.

    Geraldine, there are worse things that a person can be called. Didn’t you read the article? The judge ruled that the word is not offensive.

  9. Jeremy Dixon

    Geraldine Robertson – nobody said it was the worst thing that a person can be called, but keep beating your drum.

  10. Mareela

    Hi Ian,
    Being a right wing conservative if you follow “Bolt” the terrible, you must be a believer in free speech. So hence anyone can say what they like about Rabbott as you have said about our soon to be PM Shorten. However, my observation has always been the FRNJ only believe in free speech when they are “free speeching” about the left side of politics, otherwise they are very thin skinned. You really need to control your hate Ian. This is Australia, not Trumps America.

  11. Sharon

    Calling Abbott a cunt is unfair on every female. He is not as strong tough and as resilient as the genitalia of a woman. He should be called a dick.

  12. Tony

    I would NEVER call Abbot a cunt. Cunts are useful… he is just a sawn off knob.

  13. Tony Quirke

    What am excellent post. Very useful to have judges’ comment. I will fav this site. Great work.

  14. John

    Let’s stop using the word C*** as a derogatory remark,. A C*** is a pleasurable and highly sensitive part of the female anatomy. I think a useless dick head is far more appropriate because a useless dick is no good to anybody.

  15. Stuart

    A more appropriate thing for him to be called would be “amoeba”, a single called parasitic organism but not everybody would know what that is.

  16. Terry

    Using words like Cunt or Dick or whatever are just freedoms of expression and are in the dictionary.
    So why can’t you use it ?

  17. Stuart Maddison

    I have a sticker on my fridge which says “CAN DO is a CAN’T” which refers to that other LNP cunt Campbell Newman.
    As noted by the judge, Shakespeare used the word in his work.
    It is part of of one of my favourite expressions which suscintly describes the current dessicating weather – “It’s dry as a nun’s cunt”.
    But as others have noted to describe Abbott in such terms is offensive – because cunts are useful and arguably much more attractive.
    I prefer the term “oxygen thief” for the likes of Abbott, Howard, Corgi, etc.

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