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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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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