FCC attitudes toward the use of language. This

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FCC vs
Pacifica Broadcasting Foundation
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 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 cannot censor broadcasts, meaning, the FCC has the
power to 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.
There were no specific laws or surveillance by regulatory groups to
assure that indecent and obscene material would not be broadcast. Broadcasters
were trusted to regulate themselves and what they broadcast suitable and
compliant 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 controversial
decision 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 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).

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Leaving the question of “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 Carlins
words offend for the same reasons that obscenity offends. They also state
“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 our
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 individual 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,
“because the broadcast audience is

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