FCC vsPacifica Broadcasting FoundationIn 1978 a radio station owned by Pacifica Foundation Broadcasting outof New York City was doing a program on contemporary attitudes toward the useof language.
This broadcast occurred on a mid-afternoon weekday. Immediatelybefore the broadcast the station announced a disclaimer telling listeners thatthe program would include “sensitive language which might be regarded asoffensive to some. “(Gunther, 1991) As a part of the program the stationdecided to air a 12 minute monologue called “Filthy Words” bycomedian George Carlin. The introduction of Carlin’s “routine”consisted of, according to Carlin, “words you couldn’t say on the publicair waves.Order now
“(Carlin, 1977) The introduction to Carlin’s monologue listedthose words and repeated them in a variety of colloquialisms: I was thinkingabout the curse words and the swear words, the cuss words and the words thatyou can’t say, that you’re not supposed to say all the time. I was thinking onenight about the words you couldn’t say on the public, ah, airwaves, um, theones you definitely wouldn’t say, ever. Bastard you can say, and hell and damnso I have to figure out which ones you couldn’t and ever and it came down toseven but the list is open to amendment, and in fact, has been changed, uh, bynow. The original seven words were shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker,motherfucker, and tits. Those are the ones that will curve your spine, growhair 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 itto the Federal Communications Commission FCC. This broadcast of Carlin’s”Filthy Words” monologue caused one of the greatest and mostcontroversial cases in the history of broadcasting: The FCC v. PacificaFoundation. The outcome of this case has had a lasting effect on what we hear onthe radio. This landmark case gave the FCC the “power to regulate radiobroadcasts that are indecent but not obscene.
” (Gunther, 1991) What doesthat mean, exactly? According to the government it means that the FCC can onlyregulate broadcasts. They cannot censor broadcasts, meaning, the FCC has thepower to determine what is offensive in the matters of speech. Before this case occurred there were certain laws already in place thatprohibited obscenity over radio. One of these laws was the “law ofnuisance”. This law “generally speaks to channeling behavior morethan actually prohibiting it. “(Simones, 1995) The law in essence meantthat certain words depicting a sexual nature were limited to certain times ofthe day when children would not likely be exposed.
There were no specific laws or surveillance by regulatory groups toassure that indecent and obscene material would not be broadcast. Broadcasterswere trusted to regulate themselves and what they broadcast suitable andcompliant material over the airwaves. Therefore, when the case of the FCC vs. Pacifica made its way to the Supreme Court it was a dangerous and controversialdecision for the Supreme Court to make. The ultimate question came down to,could the government regulate the freedom of speech? Carlin’s monologue was speech according to the first amendment.
(Simones, 1995) Because of this, Pacifica argued, “the first amendmentprohibits all governmental regulation that depends on the content ofspeech. “(Gunther, 1991) “However there is no such absolute rulemandated by the constitution,” according to the Supreme Court. (Gunther, 1991). Leaving the question of “whether a broadcast of patently offensive wordsdealing with sex and excretion may be regulated because of its content. Thefact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason forsuppressing it. “(Gunther, 1991) The Supreme Court deemed that Carlinswords offend for the same reasons that obscenity offends.
They also state”these words, even though they had no literary meaning or value, werestill protected by the first amendment. “(Gunther, 1991) So, what does this mean to the American public? This decision gave ourgovernment the power to regulate, whereas it did not before. Broadcasting, outof all forms of communication, has received the most limited protection of thefirst amendment. There are two main reasons why. First, “the broadcastmedia have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of allAmericans.
“(Gunther, 1991) Airwaves not only confront the public but alsothe individual citizen. They can come into our homes uninvited or, you neverknow what to expect when they are invited in. In this case the Court decided,”because the broadcast audience is