How George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” Gave the Government the Power to Regulate What We Hear on the Radio ARTS How George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” Gave the Government the Power to Regulate What We Hear on the Radio The FCC v. Pacifica Foundation: GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS ON RADIO BROADCASTING 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 gr …