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 radio.
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 offends. They also state that “these words, even though they had no literary meaning or value, were still protected by the first amendment.”(Gunther, 1991) So what does this mean to the American public? This decision gave government the power to regulate, whereas it did not before.
Broadcasting, out of all forms of communication, has received the most limited protection of the first amendment. There are two main reasons why. First, “the broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans.”(Gunther, 1991) Airwaves not only confront the public but also the citizen. They can come into our homes uninvited or, you never know what to expect when they are invited in. In this case the Court decided that “because the broadcast audience is constantly tuning in and out, prior warnings cannot completely protect the listener or viewer from unexpected program content.”(Gunther, 1991) So here’s the simple solution, turn off the radio. How hard can that be? It’s not too difficult but the Supreme Court decided “to say that one may avoid further offense by turning off the radio…is like saying that the remedy for assault is run away after the first blow.”(Gunther, 1991)
The second reason why broadcasting has received limited first amendment protection is because “broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read.”(Gunther, 1991) Even though children at a young age can’t read obscene messages, the Carlin broadcast could have enlarged a child’s vocabulary in a matter of seconds. These two important factors of broadcasting gave the Supreme Court the push they needed for regulation. The Court decides that “the ease with which children may obtain access to broadcast material, coupled with the concerns recognized, amply justify special treatment of indecent broadcasting.”(Gunther, 1991) But does that mean that adults have to listen to what is fit for children’s ears? Must adults now go out and purchase George Carlin’s album for entertainment? This decision might not seem a fair one to most who agree with Carlin’s message, but according to the Supreme Court it “does not violate anyones first amendment rights.”(Gunther, 1991)
If the government could allow this type of speech to be regulated then they must also take into account that regulating indecent speech would effect many other integral parts of broadcasting. For instance, “these rationales could justify the banning from radio a myriad of literary works…they could support the suppression of a good deal of political speech, such as the Nixon tapes; and they could even provide the basis for imposing sanctions for the broadcast of certain portions of the bible.”(Gunther, 1991) Carlin’s monologue was speech, there is no doubt about that, and it does present a point of view. Carlin tried to show that “the words it uses are “harmless” and that our attitudes toward them are essentially silly.”(Gunther, 1991) They did not object to this point of view but did object to the way in which it is expressed.
Many people in the United States do not deem these words as offensive. In fact many people use these words daily and as a part of conversation. “In this context the Court’s decision could be seen as another of the dominant culture’s inevitable efforts to force those groups who do not share its mores to conform to it’s way of thinking, acting, and speaking.”(Gunther, 1991) Therefore, the Supreme Court looked upon Carlin’s monologue as indecent but not obscene.
The FCC was given the power to regulate the airwaves and prohibit broadcasters from promoting “indecent” material over the radio. After the Pacifica case the FCC has also extended the ban of indecent as well as obscene materials to 24 hours per day. Because of the 24 hour ban the previous “law of nuisance” allowing for indecent material to be “channeled” at certain times of the day was abolished. To promote strong regulation against indecent material the FCC has the authority to issue fines on broadcasters, whether it be fines in the terms of money or suspension of air time. The FCC, or the government, was given the ultimate power. The power to regulate what we hear.
Recently the FCC’s authority to regulate broadcasts had been challenged once again. Howard Stern, self proclaimed “king of all media” and morning show “loudmouth” has given the FCC plenty of headaches. In 1987, the FCC introduced a new regulation to broadcasters. The regulation stated that “broadcasters could not say anything patently indecent or offensive to your community.”(Stern, 1994) Before this broadcasters only had to worry about the “seven dirty words”. This new rule seemed to lack a specific meaning. The broadcasting of indecent material was clearly stated and understood since the Pacifica case. To say broadcasters could not say anything “offensive to your community” just reinforced the idea that the government want’s to conform people to their way of thinking, acting and speaking. As most of us are aware, many communities are dissimilar and comprised of many people who might have different outlooks on what indecent material would consist of. This new regulation sparked much protest against Howard Stern from many communities and individuals because the FCC essentially made the “citizen” the watchdog. If one person in a community heard Howard Stern, or any broadcaster, say something that was offensive to them and reported it to the FCC, the FCC was required to take action and administer penalties. With this new regulation many watchdog groups and campaigns formed with the soul purpose to “remove the obscene and indecent Howard Stern from the airwaves.”(Stern, 1995) One with great influence in particular was the “Morality in America Campaign” headed by a minister from Mississippi named Donald E. Wildmon. Mr. Wildmon, famous for these types of protests, orchestrated a heavily promoted national letter writing campaign to the FCC by sending out flyers to communities across the nation. Because of this action the chairman of the FCC, Alfred Sikes, took a closer look at Howard Stern and decided that his show was indecent and issued the corporation that represents Stern, Infinity Broadcasting, a warning. This warning brought publicity to Infinity Broadcasting. Ratings soared and revenue was high. Stern became such a center of attention that Infinity decided to keep The Howard Stern Show running just as it was. Mr. Wildmon’s organization still pr essed on for “morality in America” and caused Howard Stern and Infinity Broadcasting to receive more fines than anyone in the history of radio, 1.7 million dollars worth. After years of protest and behind the scenes disputes Infinity Broadcasting paid the 1.7 million dollars in fines to the FCC on September 3, 1995. The FCC’s authority was boldly challenged by Howard Stern and the fines sent a clear message to other broadcasters that the FCC would not tolerate indecent material over the airwaves. Even though Stern’s material was considered indecent by the FCC, they could not stop it. The FCC can only regulate it. Howard Stern’s message might be indecent ,however, it is still protected by the first amendment.
The outcome of the FCC v. Pacifica Foundation gave the FCC “the power to regulate radio broadcasts that are indecent but not obscene.”(Gunther, 1991) We could look at this power given to the FCC as an infringement of our first amendment rights. Should Americans let the government regulate what we here or say on our public airways? Or should we place “the responsibility and the right to weed worthless and offensive communications from the public airways in a public free to choose those communications worthy of its attention from a marketplace unsullied by the censor’s hand.”(Gunther, 1991) One could interpret this to mean the government might feel that we are not responsible enough to do this for ourselves. But I believe ,however, that if a certain amount of regulation is not applied things could very easily get out of control. If the “seven dirty words” were allowed to be said on the airwaves at any time of the day then others might find reason for openness in many other regulated activities such as pornography, or nudity and open language policies on television. A step in this direction for our society is the wrong step. We have had these regulations in place for a number of years now and it would be devastating in this day and age to allow this type of openness, especially with the problems we are facing in our communities with violence and children. However, I also think that the “seven dirty words” are just in fact what they are, words. “Carlin is not mouthing obscenities, he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our attitudes towards those words.”(Gunther, 1991) I do understand that words that are common in one setting might be offensive in another. Because I hear these words often I do not take offense to them. Although, if I had children I would not want them to hear these words over public airways or repeat them. It is important though that the parents, not the government, have the right to raise their children. I believe that the government should have let the “law of nuisance” stand. Channeling this type of material in hours where children are not exposed would be the right decision. We have created an even stronger taboo concerning these words by letting them be regulated and now we are stuck with that. Freedom of speech is an important thing and even the slightest bit of regulation could have drastic results. People wanting to see morality in America is fine, but what is this morality? Who set the standards for morality? Our morality has changed over the years and is still changing daily. I do not think these words have anything to do with morality. These are just words that were assigned to bad intentions and bad thoughts. Is it moral that we let our government decide what we hear or say. I believe that’s the greatest immoral act of all.
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.