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. "Am I bugging you? I don't mean to bug ya." If what I wrote below is too much social philosophy for Indiana attorneys, just take ten this vacay to watch The Lego Movie with kiddies and sing along where appropriate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etzMjoH0rJw

  2. I've got some free speech to share here about who is at work via the cat's paw of the ACLU stamping out Christian observances.... 2 Thessalonians chap 2: "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last."

  3. Did someone not tell people who have access to the Chevy Volts that it has a gas engine and will run just like a normal car? The batteries give the Volt approximately a 40 mile range, but after that the gas engine will propel the vehicle either directly through the transmission like any other car, or gas engine recharges the batteries depending on the conditions.

  4. Catholic, Lutheran, even the Baptists nuzzling the wolf! http://www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/judicial-watch-documents-reveal-obama-hhs-paid-baptist-children-family-services-182129786-four-months-housing-illegal-alien-children/ YET where is the Progressivist outcry? Silent. I wonder why?

  5. Thank you, Honorable Ladies, and thank you, TIL, for this interesting interview. The most interesting question was the last one, which drew the least response. Could it be that NFP stamps are a threat to the very foundation of our common law American legal tradition, a throwback to the continental system that facilitated differing standards of justice? A throwback to Star Chamber’s protection of the landed gentry? If TIL ever again interviews this same panel, I would recommend inviting one known for voicing socio-legal dissent for the masses, maybe Welch, maybe Ogden, maybe our own John Smith? As demographics shift and our social cohesion precipitously drops, a consistent judicial core will become more and more important so that Justice and Equal Protection and Due Process are yet guiding stars. If those stars fall from our collective social horizon (and can they be seen even now through the haze of NFP opinions?) then what glue other than more NFP decisions and TRO’s and executive orders -- all backed by more and more lethally armed praetorians – will prop up our government institutions? And if and when we do arrive at such an end … will any then dare call that tyranny? Or will the cost of such dissent be too high to justify?

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