Thursday, July 19, 2012

FCC vs Pacifica aka The George Carlin Case

"FCC vs Pacifica has become a standard case to teach in communications classes and many law schools. I take perverse pride in that. I'm actually a footnote to the judicial history of America," George Carllin, in his 2009 autobiography, Last Words.

I have learned a lot about this case over my loooooong college tenure. It was taught in Concord University's "Communication Law" class. Basically, it's somebody suing and saying that George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" bit was offensive and shouldn't be allowed on air.

I know a lot about this case because I took Comm. Law three times. The first time was in 2006, and I failed the course. The second time was in 2007 and I received a D, but needed a C to get credit. Then I took it again in 2008 and got a B. Sometimes I decide to not be lazy and pass classes.

The first time I took the class was with Dr. James Parker. The second and third times were with Lindsey Mullins. The first time I took it with her, she annouced one of our final assignments was to give a report in front of the class on a landmark case. I remember Larry Phares quickly volunteering to discuss FCC vs Pacifica. He went on to have one of the most fun reports of the class. So, next year when Mullins announced this assignment, I quickly volunteered to discuss FCC vs Pacifica. I don't remember all of the other cases, but I remember mine had the most laughs. Probably because mine was the only report to feature the word "cocksucker."

I recently found a rough draft of the report on my computer. It is below. I remember writing this quickly on the night before it was due. Then I woke up early (for me, probably 11 a.m.) and working on the final draft in the Rahall atrium. The class, I believe, was at 2 p.m. The final draft had a longer conclusion, some more history of other cases, and the quotes from the "shit versus stuff" bit.

That paragraph exemplifies every major paper of my college career. And we wonder why I haven't graduated yet. I remember one occasion for a history class, we had two days to write a one-page response to something we read. I forgot to do it, but went to the computer lab a couple minutes before class and cranked it out. I was only 10 minutes late for class. As a sidenote, when referring to completing assignments, I've never fully matured, so I like to use the term "cranked it out."

The George Carlin report is below. It really isn't any good, but it was good enough to pass the class with a B.

* * *

When George Carlin passed away this summer, he left behind an incredible legacy. He will be remembered as an actor, author, and speaker. He will be best known, however, as a comedian. One of Carlin's trademarks was to make fun of the English language, poking fun at its foibles. An example being, "If firefighters fight fires and crime fighters fight crime, what do freedom fighters fight?" Another funny bit showcases the differences between a person's "stuff" and that same person's "shit." [insert quotes from bit]. He also made a lot of humorous observations, this one about how necrophilia had to be created by humans, because we're the only people sick enough to come up with something like that - "A rat will do a lot of gross shit, but a rat will not fuck a dead rat. The thought won’t even cross his mind."

To communication students, Carlin is known as a key figure in a landmark indecency case, FCC v. Pacifica. A man and his 15-year-old son were driving in their car and listening to a radio station owned by the Pacifica Foundation. They were broadcasting a monologue by George Carlin entitled "Filthy Words." In this monologue, Carlin repeats a variety of what he calls the seven "dirty" words you can never over public airwaves: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

According to, the man complained to the FCC, saying that while he could understand selling Carlin's monologue for private use, he did not see a need to air this over the radio. The FCC stepped in, saying that the bit was indecent because it depicted sexual and excretory activities in a patently offensive manner. The FCC noted that the words were aired during the afternoon, when children were "undoubtedly" in the audience. This led to a battle throughout the court system, ultimately ending up settled in the Supreme Court, July 3, 1978.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court. "Of all forms of communication, broadcasting has the most limited First Amendment protection. Among the reasons for specially treating indecent broadcasting is the uniquely pervasive presence that medium of expression occupies in the lives of our people. Broadcasts extend into the privacy of the home and it is impossible completely to avoid those that are patently offensive. Broadcasting, moreover, is uniquely accessible to children."

There are a few cases that either helped shape or were shaped by this case. One of these, Duncan v. United States, decided in the 1930s, ruled that blasphemous statements such as "By God" were profane. With Gagliardo v. United States, in the 60's, statements such as "God damn it" were treated as protected expression. A case that came after Pacifica v. FCC was Action for Children’s Television v. FCC, which established the "safe harbor" hours of 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. for television and radio.

To conclude, this case is very relevant for students of communication. While the FCC didn’t take any direct action against Pacifica, they were warned that airing more indecent material could lead to fines or the loss of their station license. The lesson to learn is that stations should closely monitor what they air.

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