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    FCC vs Pacifica Broadcasting Foundation Essay

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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 airwaves.”

    (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, swear words, cuss words, and words that you can’t say all the time. One night, I was thinking about the words you couldn’t say on public airwaves, the ones you definitely wouldn’t say ever. You can say bastard, hell, and damn, so I had to figure out which ones you couldn’t say ever. It came down to seven, but the list is open to amendment and has been changed 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 peace without honor and 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 matters of speech. Before this case occurred, there were certain laws already in place that prohibited obscenity over the 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 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 Court to make. The ultimate question came down to whether the government could regulate the freedom of speech. Carlin’s monologue was speech protected by 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, the Supreme Court has stated that there is no absolute rule mandated by the Constitution. (Gunther, 1991) The question remains 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 Carlin’s 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 for 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 for this. 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. You never know what to expect when they are invited in. In this case, the Court decided that the broadcast audience is…”

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