Remembering Seven Dirty Words

Can you name all seven dirty words?  Justice Stevens can, and did — in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978), decided 33 years ago on July 3.

In December, 1973, the Federal Communications Commission received a letter from John Douglas, a member of Morality in Media.  He and his fifteen-year-old son had heard a weekday afternoon radio broadcast of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine.  It had been aired by WBAI, part of the Pacifica Foundation public radio network. The FCC subsequently issued a declaratory order holding the broadcast indecent.  No fine was imposed but the order was placed in the station’s license file.  All parties viewed the issue as an exciting test case and Pacifica appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed.

The Supreme Court then reversed the Court of Appeals in a 5-4 decision.  The majority opinion, authored by Justice Stevens, concluded that the FCC’s order did not violate the First Amendment.  The court held that in the context of broadcasting, the interests of child welfare and possibly unwilling audiences justify regulatory efforts to limit indecent content to certain time slots.  The opinion was cited frequently in the Supreme Court’s recent “fleeting expletives” case involving Fox Television Stations.

Further resources:

Nadine Strossen, Constitutional Law and Values – Version ’08 (Not Necessarily an Upgrade), 53 N.Y.L.S. L. Rev. 735 (2008-2009).

George Carlin, Last Words (2009).

Exploring Constitutional Conflicts: Regulation of Indecent Speech, (last visited June 25, 2011).

Richard A. Parker, Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions (2003).

Adam M. Samaha, The Story of FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (and Its Second Life) (Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 314).