In July of 1978, seven words from comedian George Carlin resulted in the Supreme Court offering a few of its own in response.
The idea that seven words can be deemed so offensive as to be banned from television seems almost charming in 2018. But forty year ago, in July of 1978, a five-year freedom-of-speech battle ended with the nation’s highest court ruling that, in effect, the seven were indeed out of bounds. It sparked a war of words that’s still being fought today.
In 1973, John Douglas, while driving in his car with his 15-year-old-son, tuned in to local New York radio station WBAI and heard it play a track from comedian George Carlin’s then-new album Occupation: Foole, called “Filthy Words.” Preceded by an on-air advisory, it was an extension of Carlin’s much-publicized “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” monologue from his 1972 Class Clown album, a routine that got him arrested that same year when he performed it in Milwaukee. The radio broadcast included all seven words. (Not to be printed here, the seven words are …well … familiar; one is 12 letters long, another is 10, and the remaining five are made up of four letters each.)
Douglas, who happened to be a member of the national advocacy group Morality in Media*, lodged a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), saying, among other things, the material was inappropriate for afternoon broadcast. Upon review, the FCC upheld Douglas’s complaint and issued a declaratory order against WBAI and owner Pacifica Foundation, finding that the station had violated decency standards. Though it levied no sanctions, the FCC didn’t rule out doing so in the future “in the event subsequent complaints are received.”
WBAI appealed, getting the FCC order overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in a 2–1 ruling that found the regulatory agency to have overstepped its bounds — its definition of indecency so vague and over-broad that the order violated the First Amendment.
The FCC then fired back, appealing to the Supreme Court, during which time the Department of Justice also got involved, ultimately siding with WBAI/Pacifica, saying that the FCC order violated not only the First Amendment protecting free speech but also the Fifth Amendment providing for due process.
But in a 5–4 decision handed down in July of 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that neither Amendment had been violated. Keeping the scope of its decision to the specifics of the WBAI broadcast — and because the FCC had levied no penalty against the station — it allowed for the FCC censure, saying it was within the agency’s purview to ensure decency, especially during the hours of 6am and 10pm, when children were most likely to be in tuning in to public broadcasts. (It found the “Filthy Words” monologue indecent but not obscene.) In effect, it upheld the banning of the seven words.
In doing so, however, the Court sidestepped the FCC’s wobbly definition of indecency, upon which much of the non-profit Pacifica’s defense was predicated. This left open for debate more than it settled. And thereafter came a fog of broadcasting rules and action that involve the definitions of obscenity and indecency — a fog that would come to enshroud broadcasting for years to come, including the Howard Stern and shock-jock radio era of the early 90s, the 1996 Communications Decency Act and then the Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union ruling a year later that found that part of it unconstitutional, the accidentally-on-purpose droppings of F-bombs — “fleeting expletives” — on live TV awards shows in the 2000s, and the years-long hand-wringing that followed Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe-malfunction, which itself ended up at the Supreme Court in 2011. (The fines assessed against broadcaster CBS in that case were ultimately voided.)
The 1978 ruling still stands, sorta, despite standards and technology that have continued to undercut it, starting with cable-TV in the 1980s. “The presence of cable TV and the Internet alone has done significant damage to the assumption made in the Pacifica case that broadcasting was both uniquely pervasive and uniquely accessible to children, and that the FCC has the right to censor ‘indecency,’” noted Timothy Bella in The Atlantic in 2012.
As to the “filthy” words? Setting aside that FCC v. Pacifica Foundation pivoted on a radio, not television, broadcast, of the Carlin Seven, one (a four-letter synonym for breasts) was heard on scripted broadcast TV for the first time a decade after the ruling, said by Alfre Woodward in the 1987 NBC movie Unnatural Causes; another (the four-letter substitute for dung) was heard for the first time a decade after that, in a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope. A third four-letter word (the commonly used substitute for urine) has become so commonplace that it’s difficult to fathom it ever being disallowed.
Forty years on, the pair of remaining four-letter words and the other two multisyllabic ones remain taboo on scripted broadcast television, although the one known as the “F-bomb” has often been toyed with in sitcoms from Seinfeld to Modern Family — said without being heard. It’s also commonly spoken in, and bleeped out of, interview shows from Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio to the syndicated Ellen (in the latter case it’s a by-product of that show’s current standing as the Meanest Show on All of Television, but that’s a whole other essay).
George Carlin died in 2008, having lamented the historic Pacifica court judgement for 30 years. His stance never wavered: “Language can’t hurt people.” Were the comedian alive today, in an age of streaming content, he’d see that, for good or ill, each of the seven words you can never say on television has lost impact if not meaning.
Although perhaps not as much as an eighth word — television — has.
(*Douglas’ job-job at the time was evidently with CBS, in its Education division, a fact that should not be held against anyone you happen to know who himself has a CBS connection.)
Photos: Los Angeles Times, Estate of George Carlin, NBC, CBS