Government Regulations on Radio Broadcasting

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In 1978 a radio station owned by Pacifica Foundation Broadcasting out of New

York City was doing a program on contemporary attitudes toward the use of

language. This broadcast occurred on a mid-afternoon weekday. Immediately

before the broadcast the station announced a disclaimer telling listeners

that the program would include "sensitive language which might be regarded as

offensive to some."(Gunther, 1991) As a part of the program the station

decided to air a 12 minute monologue called "Filthy Words" by comedian George

Carlin. The introduction of Carlin's "routine" consisted of, according to

Carlin, "words you couldn't say on the public air waves."(Carlin, 1977) The

introduction to Carlin's monologue listed those words and repeated them in a

variety of colloquialisms:

I was thinking about the curse words and the swear words, the cuss words and

the words that you can't say, that you're not supposed to say all the time.

I was thinking one night about the words you couldn't say on the public, ah,

airwaves, um, the ones you definitely wouldn't say, ever. Bastard you can

say, and hell and damn so I have to figure out which ones you couldn't and

ever and it came down to seven but the list is open to amendment, and in

fact, has been changed, uh, by now. The original seven words were shit,

piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the ones

that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and maybe, even bring us,

God help us, peace without honor, and a bourbon. (Carlin, 1977)

A man driving with his young son heard this broadcast and reported it to the

Federal Communications Commission [FCC]. This broadcast of Carlin's "Filthy

Words" monologue caused one of the greatest and most controversial cases in

the history of broadcasting. The case of the FCC v. Pacifica Foundation.

The outcome of this case has had a lasting effect on what we hear on the


This landmark case gave the FCC the "power to regulate radio broadcasts that

are indecent but not obscene." (Gunther, 1991) What does that mean, exactly?

According to the government it means that the FCC can only regulate

broadcasts. They can not censor broadcasts, that is determine what is

offensive in the matters of speech.

Before this case occurred there were certain laws already in place that

prohibited obscenity over radio. One of these laws was the "law of

nuisance". This law "generally speaks to channeling behavior more than

actually prohibiting it."(Simones, 1995) The law in essence meant that

certain words depicting a sexual nature were limited to certain times of the

day when children would not likely be exposed. Broadcasters were trusted to

regulate themselves and what they broadcast over the airwaves. There were no

specific laws or surveillance by regulatory groups to assure that indecent

and obscene material would not be broadcast. Therefore, when the case of the

FCC vs. Pacifica made its way to the Supreme Court it was a dangerous

decision for the Supreme Court to make. Could the government regulate the

freedom of speech? That was the ultimate question.

Carlin's monologue was speech according to the first amendment.(Simones,

1995) Because of this Pacifica argued that "the first amendment prohibits

all governmental regulation that depends on the content of speech."(Gunther,

1991) "However there is no such absolute rule mandated by the constitution,"

according to the Supreme Court.(Gunther, 1991) Therefore the question is

"whether a broadcast of patently offensive words dealing with sex and

excretion may be regulated because of its content. The fact that society may

find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing

it."(Gunther, 1991) The Supreme Court deemed that these words offend for the

same reasons that obscenity...
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