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Indecent language

Information about what can happen if a person uses insulting, threatening or offensive language in public.

It is an offence for a person who is in or near a public place or within the view or hearing of any person passing by to:

  • sing an obscene song or ballad
  • write, draw, exhibit or display an indecent or obscene word figure or representation
  • making graffiti that is obscene or pornographic
  • use profane, indecent or obscene language or threatening abusive or insulting words.

See s. 17—Summary Offences Act 1996 (Vic)(opens in a new window).

What kinds of behaviour could be captured

This wording is very broad and could include:

  • posting graffiti or a poster that people find offensive
  • using abusive language (which may or may not be directed toward any particular person)
  • chanting a racist, mysoginist or violent slogan or song.

Maximum penalty

The maximum penalty for this offence depends on whether the person has behaved in this way before:

  • first offence—10 penalty units or 2 months jail
  • second offence—15 penalty units or 3 months jail
  • third or subsequent offence—25 penalty units or 6 months jail.

A police officer may choose to issue an infringement notice instead of charging a person with this offence. A Protective services officer may also issue a fine for this offence, but only if the accused is over 18 years old and if the PSO is on duty in the vicinity of a designated place (such as a railway station).

If an infringement penalty is issued the penalty is 1 penalty unit.

See ss. 17, 60AA, 60AB—Summary Offences Act 1996 (Vic)(opens in a new window).

What the prosecution must prove

For a person to be found guilty of this offence the prosecution must prove that the person accused:

  • sang an obscene song or ballad
  • wrote drew, exibited, or displayed an indecent or obscene word, figure or representation
  • used profane, indecent, or obscene language or threatening abusive or insulting words, or
  • behaved in a riotous, indecent, offensive or insulting manner and
  • was near a public place or within the view or hearing of any person passing.

What is obscene language?

The Macquarie dictionary defines 'obscene' as being offensive to modesty or decency, indecent, inciting to lust or sexual depravity, lewd or obscene pictures, or something abominable, disgusting or repulsive.

Whether particular language or behaviour is deemed obscene, indecent or threatening will change with contemporary social standards. For example, words that might have been considered obcene when the Act was first passed, may be commonly used in everyday speech now.

What is a public place?

A public place is very broadly defined under the Act. It can include a sports ground, park, railway station, public school or swimming pool.

See What is a public place?

Possible defences

A person could defend the charge by arguing that:

  • their actions were not obscene, indecent or threatening
  • the language was not in a public place or within earshot of a public place.

More information


Summary Offences Act 1996 (Vic)

  • s. 17—obscene, indecent, threatening, abusive and etc. words and behaviour
  • s. 60AA—power to serve infringement notice
  • s. 60AB—infringement penalty

See Summary Offences Act 1996 (Vic)(opens in a new window)