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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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  4. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  5. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

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