How George Carlin’s Filthy Words Gave the Govern Essay

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How George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” Gave the Government the Power to RegulateWhat We Hear on the Radio The FCC v. Pacifica Foundation:GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS ON RADIO BROADCASTINGIn 1978 a radio station owned by Pacifica Foundation Broadcasting out of NewYork City was doing a program on contemporary attitudes toward the use oflanguage. This broadcast occurred on a mid-afternoon weekday.
Immediatelybefore the broadcast the station announced a disclaimer telling listenersthat the 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” by comedian GeorgeCarlin. The introduction of Carlin’s “routine” consisted of, according toCarlin, “words you couldn’t say on the public air waves. “(Carlin, 1977) Theintroduction to Carlin’s monologue listed those words and repeated them in avariety of colloquialisms:I was thinking about the curse words and the swear words, the cuss words andthe 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 cansay, and hell and damn so I have to figure out which ones you couldn’t andever and it came down to seven but the list is open to amendment, and infact, has been changed, uh, by now.
The original seven words were shit,piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the onesthat 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 theFederal Communications Commission FCC. This broadcast of Carlin’s “FilthyWords” monologue caused one of the greatest and most controversial cases inthe 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 theradio. This landmark case gave the FCC the “power to regulate radio broadcasts thatare indecent but not obscene. ” (Gunther, 1991) What does that mean, exactly?According to the government it means that the FCC can only regulatebroadcasts.
They can not censor broadcasts, that is determine what isoffensive 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 more thanactually prohibiting it. “(Simones, 1995) The law in essence meant thatcertain words depicting a sexual nature were limited to certain times of theday when children would not likely be exposed.
Broadcasters were trusted toregulate themselves and what they broadcast over the airwaves. There were nospecific laws or surveillance by regulatory groups to assure that indecentand obscene material would not be broadcast. Therefore, when the case of theFCC vs. Pacifica made its way to the Supreme Court it was a dangerousdecision for the Supreme Court to make. Could the government regulate thefreedom 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 prohibitsall 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 andexcretion may be regulated because of its content.
The fact that society mayfind speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressingit. “(Gunther, 1991) The Supreme Court deemed that these words offend for thesame reasons that obscenity offends. They also state that “these words, eventhough they had no literary meaning or value, were still protected by thefirst amendment. “(Gunther, 1991)So what does this mean to the Americanpublic? This decision gave government the power to regulate, whereas it didnot before.
Broadcasting, out of all forms of communication, has received the mostlimited protection of the first amendment. There are two main reasons why. First, “the broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presencein the lives of all Americans. “(Gunther, 1991) Airwaves not only confrontthe public but also the citizen. They can come into our homes uninvited or,you never know what to expect when they are invited in. In this case theCourt decided that “because the broadcast audience is constantly tuning inand out, prior warnings cannot completely protect the listener or viewer fromunexpected program content.
“(Gunther, 1991) So here’s the simple solution,turn off the radio. How hard can that be? It’s not too difficult but theSupreme Court decided “to say that one may avoid further offense by turningoff the radio. . .
is like saying that the remedy for assault is run away afterthe first blow. “(Gunther, 1991) The second reason why broadcasting has received limited first amendmentprotection is because “broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children, eventhose too young to read. “(Gunther, 1991) Even though children at a young agecan’t read obscene messages, the Carlin broadcast could have enlarged achild’s vocabulary in a matter of seconds. These two important factors ofbroadcasting gave the Supreme Court the push they needed for regulation. TheCourt decides that “the ease with which children may obtain access tobroadcast material, coupled with the concerns recognized, amply justifyspecial treatment of indecent broadcasting. “(Gunther, 1991)But does thatmean that adults have to listen to what is fit for children’s ears? Mustadults now go out and purchase George Carlin’s album for entertainment? Thisdecision might not seem a fair one to most who agree with Carlin’s message,but according to the Supreme Court it “does not violate anyones firstamendment rights.
“(Gunther, 1991) If the government could allow this type of speech to be regulated then theymust also take into account that regulating indecent speech would effect manyother integral parts of broadcasting. For instance, “these rationales couldjustify the banning from radio a myriad of literary works. . .
they couldsupport the suppression of a good deal of political speech, such as the Nixontapes; and they could even provide the basis for imposing sanctions for thebroadcast of certain portions of the bible. “(Gunther, 1991) Carlin’smonologue was speech, there is no doubt about that, and it does present apoint of view. Carlin tried to show that “the words it uses are “harmless”and that our attitudes toward them are essentially silly. “(Gunther, 1991)They did not object to this point of view but did object to the way in whichit is expressed.
Many people in the United States do not deem these words as offensive. Infact many people use these words daily and as a part of conversation. “Inthis context the Court’s decision could be seen as another of the dominantculture’s inevitable efforts to force those groups who do not share its moresto conform to it’s way of thinking, acting, and speaking. “(Gunther, 1991)Therefore, the Supreme Court looked upon Carlin’s monologue as indecent butnot obscene.
The FCC was given the power to regulate the airwaves and prohibitbroadcasters from promoting “indecent” material over the radio. After thePacifica case the FCC has also extended the ban of indecent as well asobscene materials to 24 hours per day. Because of the 24 hour ban theprevious “law of nuisance” allowing for indecent material to be “channeled”at certain times of the day was abolished. To promote strong regulationagainst indecent material the FCC has the authority to issue fines onbroadcasters, whether it be fines in the terms of money or suspension of airtime. The FCC, or the government, was given the ultimate power.
The power toregulate what we hear. Recently the FCC’s authority to regulate broadcasts had been challenged onceagain. Howard Stern, self proclaimed “king of all media” and morning show”loudmouth” has given the FCC plenty of headaches. In 1987, the FCCintroduced a new regulation to broadcasters. The regulation stated that”broadcasters could not say anything patently indecent or offensive to yourcommunity. “(Stern, 1994)Before this broadcasters only had to worry aboutthe “seven dirty words”.
This new rule seemed to lack a specific meaning. The broadcasting of indecent material was clearly stated and understoodsince the Pacifica case. To say broadcasters could not say anything”offensive to your community” just reinforced the idea that the governmentwant’s to conform people to their way of thinking, acting and speaking. As most of us are aware, many communities are dissimilar and comprised ofmany people who might have different outlooks on what indecent material wouldconsist of. This new regulation sparked much protest against Howard Sternfrom many communities and individuals because the FCC essentially made the”citizen” the watchdog. If one person in a community heard Howard Stern, orany broadcaster, say something that was offensive to them and reported it tothe FCC, the FCC was required to take action and administer penalties.
With this new regulation many watchdog groups and campaigns formed with thesoul purpose to “remove the obscene and indecent Howard Stern from theairwaves. “(Stern, 1995) One with great influence in particular was the”Morality in America Campaign” headed by a minister from Mississippi namedDonald E. Wildmon. Mr. Wildmon, famous for these types of protests,orchestrated a heavily promoted national letter writing campaign to the FCCby sending out flyers to communities across the nation.
Because of thisaction the chairman of the FCC, Alfred Sikes, took a closer look at HowardStern and decided that his show was indecent and issued the corporation thatrepresents Stern, Infinity Broadcasting, a warning. This warning broughtpublicity to Infinity Broadcasting. Ratings soared and revenue was high. Stern became such a center of attention that Infinity decided to keep TheHoward Stern Show running just as it was. Mr. Wildmon’s organization still pressed on for “morality in America” and caused Howard Stern and InfinityBroadcasting to receive more fines than anyone in the history of radio, 1.
7million dollars worth. After years of protest and behind the scenes disputesInfinity Broadcasting paid the 1. 7 million dollars in fines to the FCC onSeptember 3, 1995. The FCC’s authority was boldly challenged by HowardStern and the fines sent a clear message to other broadcasters that the FCCwould not tolerate indecent material over the airwaves. Even though Stern’smaterial was considered indecent by the FCC, they could not stop it. TheFCC can only regulate it.
Howard Stern’s message might be indecent ,however,it is still protected by the first amendment. The outcome of the FCC v. Pacifica Foundation gave the FCC “the power toregulate radio broadcasts that are indecent but not obscene. “(Gunther, 1991)We could look at this power given to the FCC as an infringement of our firstamendment rights.
Should Americans let the government regulate what we hereor say on our public airways? Or should we place “the responsibility and theright to weed worthless and offensive communications from the public airwaysin a public free to choose those communications worthy of its attention froma marketplace unsullied by the censor’s hand. “(Gunther, 1991) One could interpret this to mean the government might feel that we are notresponsible enough to do this for ourselves. But I believe ,however, thatif a certain amount of regulation is not applied things could very easily getout of control. If the “seven dirty words” were allowed to be said on theairwaves at any time of the day then others might find reason for openness inmany other regulated activities such as pornography, or nudity and openlanguage policies on television. A step in this direction for our society isthe wrong step. We have had these regulations in place for a number of yearsnow and it would be devastating in this day and age to allow this type ofopenness, especially with the problems we are facing in our communities withviolence and children.
However, I also think that the “seven dirty words”are just in fact what they are, words. “Carlin is not mouthing obscenities,he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly ourattitudes towards those words. “(Gunther, 1991) I do understand that wordsthat are common in one setting might be offensive in another. Because I hearthese words often I do not take offense to them.
Although, if I had childrenI would not want them to hear these words over public airways or repeat them. It is important though that the parents, not the government, have the rightto raise their children. I believe that the government should have let the “law of nuisance” stand. Channeling this type of material in hours where children are not exposedwould be the right decision. We have created an even stronger tabooconcerning these words by letting them be regulated and now we are stuck withthat.
Freedom of speech is an important thing and even the slightest bit ofregulation could have drastic results. People wanting to see morality inAmerica is fine, but what is this morality? Who set the standards formorality? Our morality has changed over the years and is still changingdaily. I do not think these words have anything to do with morality. Theseare just words that were assigned to bad intentions and bad thoughts.
Is itmoral that we let our government decide what we hear or say. I believethat’s the greatest immoral act of all. ReferencesGunther, G. (1991). Constitutional Law.
Twelfth Edition. New York: TheFoundation Press, Inc. pp. 1154-1161.
Carlin, G. (1977). Class Clown. “Filthy Words” monologue.
AtlanticRecords, Inc. Simones, A. (1995). Lecture on FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. October 27,1995.
Constitutional Law, Southwest Missouri State University. Stern, H. (1994). Private Parts. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Stern, H. (1995). Miss America. New York: Regan Books. Authors Note:This recieved an “A” for a media class. Please not there are some typo’sthat were pointed out in this paper and have not been corrected.
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