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Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation

    Brief Fact Summary. The Respondent, Pacifica Foundation (Respondent), broadcast part of a comedy show that listed the “dirty words” that are not to be used on the radio. The Petitioner, the Federal Communication Commission (Petitioner), issued a declaratory order warning Respondent of potential sanctions.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Broadcasts of indecent material can be regulated according to the context of the broadcast and on a case-by-case basis.

    Facts. The Respondent is the parent company of a New York City radio station that aired segments of George Carlin’s 12-minute monologue on “dirty words.” This included a listing of the words that are not to be used on public airwaves. Then, the words are repeated through common speech. This monologue was aired at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday in 1973. A listener wrote to the Petitioner complaining that his young son overheard the words while they were driving in the car. The Respondent was given a written warning and threatened with sanctions if anyone else complained.

    Issue. Can radio broadcasts be regulated for language that is indecent, but not obscene?

    Held. Yes. There is a proper public interest in protecting listeners from indecency over the airwaves.

    Discussion. The government may regulate the time of day of such broadcasts or prohibit the use of certain words according to the context in which they are used. This ruling considers the broadcast to be an intrusion into the public space and classifies it as a nuisance.


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