George Carlin’s legal legacy

June 24, 2008
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George Carlin, 71, who died Sunday of heart failure, was a legend in the comedy world, but he also made his mark in the legal world. Carlin’s “seven words” routine is arguably what made him an icon and was the impetus for a case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).

The routine was played on several radio stations, and one New York father filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in 1973 after hearing the act on a local radio station in the afternoon while driving with his son. The FCC characterized the language in the act as “patently offensive” and indecent and should be prohibited by 18 U.S.C. 1464.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 split affirmed the government’s right to regulate indecent but not obscene broadcasts. In it, the court emphasized the narrowness of its holding and also noted it hadn’t decided whether an occasional expletive would justify a sanction. Fast-forward to 2004 and the Super Bowl halftime incident with Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, and an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction, where broadcasters found themselves more accountable for slipups deemed “indecent” by the FCC that before may have not garnered such large fines.

In an interesting note on the “seven words” case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling contained an attachment from the FCC of a verbatim transcript of one of Carlin’s routines on the subject. Being a public record, savvy kids who were unable to get their hands on a recording of Carlin’s act could get a copy of this court case and read the words for themselves. Reading it certainly diminishes a lot of the comedy and shock of hearing them, but at least it would satisfy the curiosity of just what exactly those famous seven words were.

Of the seven original words, most are still banned by the FCC for broadcast on the radio and television – unless it’s a premium cable channel like HBO, but a few manage to find their way into TV shows and songs without any censorship. Do the “seven words you can never say on television” still have the power to shock? What do you think?
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