Offensive Language Crimes in Law, Media, and Popular Culture
- Elyse MethvenElyse MethvenDepartment of Law, University of Technology Sydney
In Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, public order laws criminalize the use of swearing, offensive, or abusive language in a public place. Police officers use these laws as tools to assert “their authority” or command respect in public spaces where that authority is perceived to be challenged via the use of profanities such as “fuck.” Alongside the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, representations of swearing in the media influence ideas about whether swear words warrant criminal punishment. A particular “common-sense” assumption about language (language ideology) prevalent in media representations of offensive language crimes, echoed by politicians and police representatives, is that disrespecting or challenging police authority via “four-letter words” warrants criminal sanction.
However, popular culture can counter dominant ideologies with respect to offensive language, police, and authority. This article examines how the use of swear words in N.W.A’s popular rap song “Fuck tha Police” (1988) and in the HBO television series The Wire (Simon & Burns, 2002–2008) can inform and challenge legal assessments of community standards with regards to offensive language.