In the 1960’s, George Carlin, a once straight laced, suit and tie stand up comic, was arrested alongside Lenny Bruce. Carlin and Bruce shared a ride to the station and when Carlin returned to work, he wasn’t the same. Carlin had adopted the philosophy that a comic’s job was to find the line and wildly leap across it. This philosophy is what lead up to the famous “obscenity vs indecent” case known as FCC vs. Pacifica. Carlin had a segment referred to as “dirty words” that lasted approximately 12 minutes and included many explicit terms typically thought of as “dirty”. After performing this segment in Milwaukee, Carlin was arrested July 1972 for disobeying obscenity laws but the case was later dismissed citing that Carlin’s language was indecent but not obscene. A little over a year later, Carlin’s “dirty words” segment was played on a Pacifica affiliate radio at around 2:00p. John H. Douglas heard the segment while driving home that afternoon. Douglass complained to the FCC since his 15 year old son was in the car when the segment started and he was offended that his son had been exposed to such crass language. In his letter, Douglass lamented the fact that this “obscene language” was played at a peak time of day when any unsuspecting child could accidentally tune in and be exposed to it. Thus began the FCC vs. Pacifica trial. While this was the only recorded complaint Pacifica received, the FCC looked into Douglass’ complaint and in 15 months gave a ruling.
Initially, the FCC reprimanded Pacifica for allowing an “obscene” segment to be aired on the radio at a peak time of the day. The FCC argued that the language used in Carlin’s segment was offensive, though the FCC did not believe it was obscene, and went against the statute prohibiting the broadcast of obscene, indecent and profane language. With this in mind, the FCC set a specific time of day where these The FCC issued the reprimand to Pacifica, granted the complaint, but did not put a sanction on Pacifica at that time. The FCC did however, note that, should any more complaints be received, the FCC would take them into account when Pacifica went up to renew its license. Pacifica petitioned for clarification or reconsideration, claiming the segment was played for educational purposes about Taboo language and that a disclaimer had been issued before the segment was played. Still, the FCC held firm to its beliefs.
Pacifica then appealed to the DC circuit court of appeals claiming that the FCC was unfairly censoring Pacifica. The court of appeals ruled in favor of Pacifica and reversed the FCC’s actions. On October 7, 1977, the FCC appealed to the Supreme Court which agreed to hear the appeal in April 1978. The case got technical, since “indecent” speech is protected under the First Amendment whereas obscene was not, and the Supreme Court felt it was important to make the distinction for the language used in the segment. Pacifica argued that the language used was simply indecent and thus the FCC had no right to regulate “indecent” language, only obscene. Claiming that the FCC’s rules were unconstitutional and too broad, Pacifica expected another win. On July 3, 1978, much to the surprise of Pacifica, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC. This ruling gave the FCC the right to regulate indecent language used in radio broadcast during the hours which children would undoubtedly be present. This case was the first time the courts reviewed the power of government to penalize selected language over the radio and empowering the FCC.
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