FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)

2012-06-21 14:31:51

George Carlin, a comedian, recorded a famous monologue in which he riffed on ‘‘7 Dirty Words’’—slang words he claimed could never be uttered on radio or television. Carlin’s thesis was proved correct one day when Pacifica’s New York radio station broadcast a recording of the monologue during an afternoon program addressing contemporary attitudes on language. A parent driving with his child complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC found Pacifica had violated ‘‘indecency’’ rules applicable to public broadcasters. Pacifica appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court found that the First Amendment permits different standards to be applied to the broadcast media, as opposed to print or other public spaces such as taverns. The earlier Cohen decision, for example, had overturned the conviction of a war protestor wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words, ‘‘F*** the Draft,’’ holding that the government could not sanction offensive words used in public speech because of the risk of censoring ideas.

The key features of broadcasting distinguishing it from other modes of communication reflected the Court’s desire to shield ‘‘captive audience’’ members from offensive communications, particularly in the privacy of the home and in other settings in which children might be present. Unlike other contexts in which unwilling listeners may avoid offensive language, on-air listeners cannot so easily predict whether a given program will contain offensive language. The Court also thought that parents could not realistically monitor broadcasts for indecent language to protect children.


References and Further Reading

  • Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971).
  • Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969).
  • Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997).

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Broadcast Regulation; Captive Audiences and Free Speech; Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971); Federal Communications Commission; Public Vulgarity and Free Speech