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FCC v. Pacifica Foundation

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Brief Fact Summary.

One afternoon, a New York radio station aired George Carlin’s monologue, “Filthy Words.” Carlin said certain words that could not be said on the public airwaves. The FCC received a complaint from a man who stated that he had heard the broadcast while driving with his young son.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The government may regulate indecent speech over the broadcast medium.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Invalidating any rule on the basis of its hypothetical application to situations not before the Court is strong medicine to be applied sparingly and only as a last resort.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

During an early afternoon weekday broadcast, a New York radio station aired George Carlin’s comedy monologue, “Filthy Words.” During the monologue, Carlin spoke of the words that could not be said on the public airwaves. His list included a range of swear words. Immediately prior to the broadcast, the radio station warned listeners that the monologue included sensitive language which might be regarded as offensive to some, and to change the station and return in fifteen minutes if desired. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received a complaint from a man who stated that he had heard the broadcast while driving with his young son. The FCC censured the radio station for allegedly violating broadcast regulations which prohibited airing indecent material. Although the FCC did not impose formal sanctions, it placed a letter in the station’s file that could be used to enhance future punishments.

Issue.

In accordance with the First Amendment, may the government constitutionally restrict the public broadcast of indecent language?

Held.

Yes, the government may constitutionally restrict the public broadcast of indecent language.

Dissent.

Justice Brennan

Justice Brennan criticized the plurality for allowing the suppression of non-obscene speech that adults and older minors should be able to listen to if they wanted to. He also accused the majority of failing to appreciate cultural pluralism, writing “It is only an acute ethnocentric myopia that enables the Court to approve the censorship of communications solely because of the words they contain.”

Concurrence.

Justice Powell

Justice Powell concurred and agreed with much of the majority’s analysis. However, he wrote separately to dispute the majority’s proposition that the First Amendment allowed the government to make judgments as to which forms of speech were more “valuable” than others.

Discussion.

It is undisputed that the content of Pacifica’s broadcast was vulgar, offensive, and shocking. Content of that character is not entitled to absolute constitutional protection under all circumstances. Thus, it is necessary to consider its context in determining whether the FCC‘s action was constitutionally permissible.

Each medium of expression presents particular First Amendment problems. And of all forms of communication, broadcasting has received the most limited First Amendment protection. First, the broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans. Second, broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read.


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