Why Dirty Words Are Dirty Essay Research
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Why Dirty Words Are Dirty Essay, Research Paper
How George CarlinТs УFilthy WordsФ Gave the Government the Power to
What We Hear on the Radio
The FCC v. Pacifica Foundation:
GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS ON RADIO BROADCASTING
In 1978 a radio station owned by Pacifica Foundation Broadcasting out of
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 Уsensitive language which might be regarded
offensive to some.Ф(Gunther, 1991) As a part of the program the station
decided to air a 12 minute monologue called УFilthy WordsФ by comedian
Carlin. The introduction of CarlinТs УroutineФ consisted of, according to
Carlin, Уwords you couldnТt say on the public air waves.Ф(Carlin, 1977) The
introduction to CarlinТs monologue listed those words and repeated them in
variety of colloquialisms:
I was thinking about the curse words and the swear words, the cuss words
the words that you canТt say, that youТre not supposed to say all the time.
I was thinking one night about the words you couldnТt say on the public,
airwaves, um, the ones you definitely wouldnТt say, ever. Bastard you can
say, and hell and damn so I have to figure out which ones you couldnТt and
ever and it came down to seven but the list is open to amendment, and in
fact, has been changed, uh, by now. The original seven words were *censored*,
piss, *censored*, cunt, cocksucker, mother*censored*er, and tits. Those are the ones
that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and maybe, even bring
God help us, peace without honor, and a bourbon. (Carlin, 1977)
A man driving with his young son heard this broadcast and reported it to
Federal Communications Commission [FCC]. This broadcast of CarlinТs УFilthy
WordsФ monologue caused one of the greatest and most controversial cases in
the history of broadcasting. The case of the FCC v. Pacifica Foundation.
The outcome of this case has had a lasting effect on what we hear on the
This landmark case gave the FCC the Уpower to regulate radio broadcasts
are indecent but not obscene.Ф (Gunther, 1991) What does that mean,
According to the government it means that the FCC can only regulate
broadcasts. They can not censor broadcasts, that is determine what is
offensive in the matters of speech.
Before this case occurred there were certain laws already in place that
prohibited obscenity over radio. One of these laws was the Уlaw of
nuisanceФ. This law Уgenerally speaks to channeling behavior more than
actually prohibiting it.Ф(Simones, 1995) The law in essence meant that
certain words depicting a sexual nature were limited to certain times of
day when children would not likely be exposed. Broadcasters were trusted to
regulate themselves and what they broadcast over the airwaves. There were
specific laws or surveillance by regulatory groups to assure that indecent
and obscene material would not be broadcast. Therefore, when the case of
FCC vs. Pacifica made its way to the Supreme Court it was a dangerous
decision for the Supreme Court to make. Could the government regulate the
freedom of speech? That was the ultimate question.
CarlinТs monologue was speech according to the first amendment.(Simones,
1995) Because of this Pacifica argued that Уthe first amendment prohibits
all governmental regulation that depends on the content of
1991) УHowever there is no such absolute rule mandated by the
according to the Supreme Court.(Gunther, 1991) Therefore the question is
Уwhether a broadcast of patently offensive words dealing with sex and
excretion may be regulated because of its content. The fact that society
find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing
it.Ф(Gunther, 1991) The Supreme Court deemed that these words offend for
same reasons that obscenity offends. They also state that Уthese words,
though they had no literary meaning or value, were still protected by the
first amendment.Ф(Gunther, 1991) So what does this mean to the American
public? This decision gave government the power to regulate, whereas it did
Broadcasting, out of all forms of communication, has received the most
limited protection of the first amendment. There are two main reasons why.
First, Уthe broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence
in the lives of all Americans.Ф(Gunther, 1991) Airwaves not only confront
the public but also the citizen. They can come into our homes uninvited or,
you never know what to expect when they are invited in. In this case the
Court decided that Уbecause the broadcast audience is constantly tuning in
and out, prior warnings cannot completely protect the listener or viewer
unexpected program content.Ф(Gunther, 1991) So hereТs the simple solution,
turn off the radio. How hard can that be? ItТs not too difficult but the
Supreme Court decided Уto say that one may avoid further offense by turning
off the radioЕis like saying that the remedy for assault is run away
the first blow.Ф(Gunther, 1991)
The second reason why broadcasting has received limited first amendment
protection is because Уbroadcasting is uniquely accessible to children,
those too young to read.Ф(Gunther, 1991) Even though children at a young
canТt read obscene messages, the Carlin broadcast could have enlarged a
childТs vocabulary in a matter of seconds. These two important factors of
broadcasting gave the Supreme Court the push they needed for regulation.
Court decides that Уthe ease with which children may obtain access to
broadcast material, coupled with the concerns recognized, amply justify
special treatment of indecent broadcasting.Ф(Gunther, 1991) But does that
mean that adults have to listen to what is fit for childrenТs ears? Must
adults now go out and purchase George CarlinТs album for entertainment?
decision might not seem a fair one to most who agree with CarlinТs message,
but according to the Supreme Court it Уdoes not violate anyones first
amendment rights.Ф(Gunther, 1991)
If the government could allow this type of speech to be regulated then they
must also take into account that regulating indecent speech would effect
other integral parts of broadcasting. For instance, Уthese rationales could
justify the banning from radio a myriad of literary worksЕthey could
support the suppression of a good deal of political speech, such as the
tapes; and they could even provide the basis for imposing sanctions for the
broadcast of certain portions of the bible.Ф(Gunther, 1991) CarlinТs
monologue was speech, there is no doubt about that, and it does present a
point of view. Carlin tried to show that Уthe words it uses are УharmlessФ
and that our attitudes toward them are essentially silly.Ф(Gunther, 1991)
They did not object to this point of view but did object to the way in
it is expressed.
Many people in the United States do not deem these words as offensive. In
fact many people use these words daily and as a part of conversation. УIn
this context the CourtТs decision could be seen as another of the dominant
cultureТs inevitable efforts to force those groups who do not share its
to conform to itТs way of thinking, acting, and speaking.Ф(Gunther, 1991)
Therefore, the Supreme Court looked upon CarlinТs monologue as indecent but
The FCC was given the power to regulate the airwaves and prohibit
broadcasters from promoting УindecentФ material over the radio. After the
Pacifica case the FCC has also extended the ban of indecent as well as
obscene materials to 24 hours per day. Because of the 24 hour ban the
previous Уlaw of nuisanceФ allowing for indecent material to be УchanneledФ
at certain times of the day was abolished. To promote strong regulation
against indecent material the FCC has the authority to issue fines on
broadcasters, whether it be fines in the terms of money or suspension of
time. The FCC, or the government, was given the ultimate power. The power
regulate what we hear.
Recently the FCCТs authority to regulate broadcasts had been challenged
again. Howard Stern, self proclaimed Уking of all mediaФ and morning show
УloudmouthФ has given the FCC plenty of headaches. In 1987, the FCC
introduced a new regulation to broadcasters. The regulation stated that
Уbroadcasters could not say anything patently indecent or offensive to your
community.Ф(Stern, 1994) Before this broadcasters only had to worry about
the Уseven dirty wordsФ. This new rule seemed to lack a specific meaning.
The broadcasting of indecent material was clearly stated and understood
since the Pacifica case. To say broadcasters could not say anything
Уoffensive to your communityФ just reinforced the idea that the government
wantТs to conform people to their way of thinking, acting and speaking.
As most of us are aware, many communities are dissimilar and comprised of
many people who might have different outlooks on what indecent material
consist of. This new regulation sparked much protest against Howard Stern
from many communities and individuals because the FCC essentially made the
УcitizenФ the watchdog. If one person in a community heard Howard Stern, or
any broadcaster, say something that was offensive to them and reported it
the FCC, the FCC was required to take action and administer penalties.
With this new regulation many watchdog groups and campaigns formed with the
soul purpose to Уremove the obscene and indecent Howard Stern from the
airwaves.Ф(Stern, 1995) One with great influence in particular was the
УMorality in America CampaignФ headed by a minister from Mississippi named
Donald E. Wildmon. Mr. Wildmon, famous for these types of protests,
orchestrated a heavily promoted national letter writing campaign to the FCC
by sending out flyers to communities across the nation. Because of this
action the chairman of the FCC, Alfred Sikes, took a closer look at Howard
Stern and decided that his show was indecent and issued the corporation
represents Stern, Infinity Broadcasting, a warning. This warning brought
publicity to Infinity Broadcasting. Ratings soared and revenue was high.
Stern became such a center of attention that Infinity decided to keep The
Howard Stern Show running just as it was. Mr. WildmonТs organization still
essed on for Уmorality in AmericaФ and caused Howard Stern and Infinity
Broadcasting to receive more fines than anyone in the history of radio, 1.7
million dollars worth. After years of protest and behind the scenes
Infinity Broadcasting paid the 1.7 million dollars in fines to the FCC on
September 3, 1995. The FCCТs authority was boldly challenged by Howard
Stern and the fines sent a clear message to other broadcasters that the FCC
would not tolerate indecent material over the airwaves. Even though SternТs
material was considered indecent by the FCC, they could not stop it. The
FCC can only regulate it. Howard SternТs message might be indecent
it is still protected by the first amendment.
The outcome of the FCC v. Pacifica Foundation gave the FCC Уthe power to
regulate radio broadcasts that are indecent but not obscene.Ф(Gunther,
We could look at this power given to the FCC as an infringement of our
amendment rights. Should Americans let the government regulate what we here
or say on our public airways? Or should we place Уthe responsibility and
right to weed worthless and offensive communications from the public
in a public free to choose those communications worthy of its attention
a marketplace unsullied by the censorТs hand.Ф(Gunther, 1991)
One could interpret this to mean the government might feel that we are not
responsible enough to do this for ourselves. But I believe ,however, that
if a certain amount of regulation is not applied things could very easily
out of control. If the Уseven dirty wordsФ were allowed to be said on the
airwaves at any time of the day then others might find reason for openness
many other regulated activities such as pornography, or nudity and open
language policies on television. A step in this direction for our society
the wrong step. We have had these regulations in place for a number of
now and it would be devastating in this day and age to allow this type of
openness, especially with the problems we are facing in our communities
violence and children. However, I also think that the Уseven dirty wordsФ
are just in fact what they are, words. УCarlin is not mouthing obscenities,
he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our
attitudes towards those words.Ф(Gunther, 1991) I do understand that words
that are common in one setting might be offensive in another. Because I
these words often I do not take offense to them. Although, if I had
I would not want them to hear these words over public airways or repeat
It is important though that the parents, not the government, have the right
to raise their children.
I believe that the government should have let the Уlaw of nuisanceФ stand.
Channeling this type of material in hours where children are not exposed
would be the right decision. We have created an even stronger taboo
concerning these words by letting them be regulated and now we are stuck
that. Freedom of speech is an important thing and even the slightest bit of
regulation could have drastic results. People wanting to see morality in
America is fine, but what is this morality? Who set the standards for
morality? Our morality has changed over the years and is still changing
daily. I do not think these words have anything to do with morality. These
are just words that were assigned to bad intentions and bad thoughts. Is it
moral that we let our government decide what we hear or say. I believe
thatТs the greatest immoral act of all.
Gunther, G. (1991). Constitutional Law. Twelfth Edition. New York: The
Foundation Press, Inc. pp. 1154-1161.
Carlin, G. (1977). Class Clown. УFilthy WordsФ monologue. Atlantic
Simones, A. (1995). Lecture on FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. October 27,
1995. Constitutional Law, Southwest Missouri State University.
Stern, H. (1994). Private Parts. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Stern, H. (1995). Miss America. New York: Regan Books.