How George Carlin \'s "Filthy Words" Gave the Government the Power to Regulate What We Hear on the Radio
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