It seems weirdly coincidental that George Carlin died almost 30 years to the day that the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision on broadcast indecency involving his “Filthy Words” routine. (Click here to read that 1978 decision for yourself — it’s a good read, if you dig wonky First Amendment stuff.) It’s also interesting that the Supremes have agreed to take up their first broadcast indecency case during the 2008-09 session since they weighed in on Carlin’s risque radio riffage back in the Carter era.
In fact, the Pacifica case that has determined so much of broadcast indecency policy — at least until the indecency crusaders Michael Powell and Kevin Martin got a hold of the Federal Communications Commission — got its start in Nixon-era America. It was Oct. 30, 1973, about 2 p.m. in the afternoon. A New York man was driving with his young son in the car and over public radio station WBAI-FM came Carlin’s “Filthy Words” rap (it’s called “Filthy Words” in the Supreme Court decision but history seems to have dubbed it the “Seven Words” routine), about words so deemed so naughty they could not be uttered on the public airwaves. The bit set the man’s hair on fire, leading him to lodge complaints with the station and eventually, the FCC.
By February 1975, the commish decided that Carlin’s routine (excerpts posted after the jump) was “patently offensive.” The FCC didn’t try to levy a fine, but sought to but an official “order” in the station’s file that would be considered if the station racked up additional complaints. Pacifica wasn’t having any of that and a three-year court battle ensued. Certainly, Carlin was well on his way to comedy superstardom before his name became forever intertwined with heavy-duty legal precedent, but his association with the landmark case also gave him a level of stature and importance, in pop culture and among his comedian peers, that he might otherwise have achieved.
In the end, the Supreme Court decided that Carlin’s routine was “patently offensive” and profane by any definition of the phrase, even if it wasn’t specifically wallowing in the “sexually or excretory organs or activities” muck that had been (and continues to be) a litmus test for broadcast indecency cases. The biggest strike against Pacifica was the fact that it aired in the afternoon. As a lower court noted in one of its rulings, and as any parent would agree, “the broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans.”
Here’s an excerpt from Justice John Paul Stevens’ majority opinion: