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...
References: Gunther, G. (1991). Constitutional Law. Twelfth Edition. New York: The
Foundation Press, Inc. pp. 1154-1161.
Carlin, G. (1977). Class Clown. "Filthy Words" monologue. Atlantic
Simones, A. (1995). Lecture on FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. October 27,
1995. Constitutional Law, Southwest Missouri State University.
Stern, H. (1994). Private Parts. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Stern, H. (1995). Miss America. New York: Regan Books.
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