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Dr Elyse Methven
University of Technology Sydney

This paper examines judicial attitudes towards the swear word ‘cunt’ in Australian criminal law jurisprudence. It critiques these attitudes with regard to the concept of language ideologies – taken-for-granted assumptions about how language works, and sociolinguistic literature on swearing. The legal offensiveness of the ‘c-word’ has once again come under the spotlight following the arrest earlier this year of 75-year-old activist Danny Lim at a Sydney train station for offensive behaviour. Lim had been displaying a sign that read: ‘Smile cvn’t! Why cvn’t?’ when he was arrested by police in response to a bystander’s complaint that she was offended by the sign ‘as a woman’. The paper extends my doctoral research on the use of language ideologies in the law by focusing on the myths and assumptions that have informed the criminalisation of this impugned four-letter word since colonisation. The paper argues that judicial discourse has played a fundamental role in naturalising broader folk-linguistic myths about the word ‘cunt’ being inherently disgusting, harmful and contagious, especially when used in front of women and children. After unpacking the myths that colour judicial views on the offensiveness of this word, the paper asks: is it still possible to confidently assert that the c-word is criminally offensive in Australian law?

Dr Elyse Methven is a Lecturer in Law and a UTS. Her areas of expertise include criminal law, criminal justice, and the interdisciplinary field of law and language. Elyse was admitted as a Solicitor to the Supreme Court of NSW in 2009. Elyse joined UTS Law Faculty in 2011, as an inaugural Quentin Bryce Doctoral Scholar and completed her PhD in 2017, in which she explored the representation of offensive language crimes in criminal justice discourse. In 2018, Elyse was awarded a UTS early career research grant for a project titled “Swift Justice? Police discretion and on-the-spot fines for offensive language.”

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