Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

What's the Bloody Law on This? Nurses, Swearing, and the Law in New South Wales, Australia

Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

What's the Bloody Law on This? Nurses, Swearing, and the Law in New South Wales, Australia

Article excerpt


The law regarding swearing is not well understood because several aspects are ambiguous. Terms such as 'offensive language' and 'verbal aggression', used interchangeably in everyday speech, have distinct legal meanings. Cursing or swearing might be a feature of both offensive language and verbal aggression, but is not a necessary feature of either. Furthermore, the law deals differently with written and spoken language, and charges relating to offensive language have frequently been brought under laws relating to obscenity. The term most common in Australia, 'swearing', is used in this article because it embraces other applications, such as unintentional or humorous use of bad language and taboo terms intended to insult or intimidate others.

Swearwords are derived mainly from religion, sexual and bodily functions, and racial epithets. Which words qualify as swearwords is dependent on context and culture. In law, the definition of offensive language is more complex still: what constitutes obscene speech is determined initially by the discretionary power of the police and then by the magistrates of the court (Brown, Farrier, Egger, McNamara, & Steele, 2006) and is subject to evolving changes in society's mores. Legislation about offensive language is intended to protect people from the detrimental effects of speech (Jay, 1999) and to control behaviour in public places (Brown et al., 2006).

Use of offensive language may result in exclusion from schooling, healthcare and other services, in fines or even imprisonment. These harsh consequences are not even-handedly applied. Young people, Indigenous Australians, and members of low socio-economic groups are likely to be disproportionately disadvantaged by actions to control offensive language because swearing might be a habitual part of an individual's language, and subject to misinterpretation as aggressive speech (White, 2002).

Current health policies such as the NSW Health Zero Tolerance Policy (NSW Health, 2003a) concerning verbal aggression are punitive or inconsistent, which could lead to problems in managing swearing and offensive language in a clinical setting. Nurses may be uncertain of their rights and responsibilities, and difficulties arise for managers in deciding where 'the line' is in dealing with patient to staff, staff to staff, or staff to patient swearing. The importance of this issue is evident, given the high prevalence of verbal aggression in the health workplace and the impact it has on nurses (Stone, 2009) and on patients if they are excluded from health care.

Verbal aggression occurs frequently in the health service (Deans, 2004; Foster, Bowers, & Nijman, 2007; Nijman, Bowers, Oud, & Jansen, 2005). Nurses, more than other healthcare staff, are targets of aggressive incidents, and the average for mental health and learning disability units is >2.5 times that of other areas of the health service (National Audit Office, 2003). Nijman et al. (2005) reported that over a 1-year period 80-90% of mental health nurses were subjected to verbal abuse and threats, although violence is not exclusively directed against mental health nurses; an extensive study of 97,000 National Health employees in London found that midwives frequently experience harassment or violence (Robinson & Perryman, 2002). The association between swearing and verbal aggression has been described elsewhere (Stone & Hazelton, 2008). Stone's (2009) questionnaire study of 107 nurses across three health care settings - paediatrics, adult mental health, and child and adolescent mental health - reported high levels of swearing, 29% of nurses being sworn at 1-5 times per week and 7% 'continuously.'

The high rate of verbal aggression against nurses has been perceived as reflecting a rising trend in the use of swearing and offensive language in general. During the period 1997-1999 when recorded crime rates for all major offence categories in New South Wales (NSW) were stable or falling, the incidence of offensive language increased by 38% [from 5,215 to 7,181 (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 1999)], a change attributed to higher levels of enforcement behaviour. …

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