On 30 October 1973, FM radio station WBAI— owned by the Pacifica Foundation and located in New York City— aired a program about social attitudes towards language. As part of that program the station ran a segment featuring the comedian George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine (which you can see in the video above). It’s a great bit, one that people continue to refer to in discussing how strange it is that some words simply can’t be said on air.
Unfortunately for WBAI, it wasn’t as funny a few weeks later to John Douglas. Douglas, an active member of Morality in Media (now the National Center for Sexual Exploitation), was driving along with his 15-year-old son when heard a 2:00 PM re-airing of the program. Stunned at the vile language, he filed a complaint with the FCC, who in turn sent a letter to Pacifica reprimanding them for breaking regulations prohibiting the broadcast of indecent material. Pacifica challenged this.
In a 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the FCC, saying that while the broadcast wasn’t obscene, it was indecent, something the Court recognized the government had an interested in regulating. This interest was rooted in wanting to ensure children, and those seeking privacy, could more easily avoid hearing indecent or profane language, which was a genuine concern given how easily and omnipresent radio broadcasts are.
As you can imagine, the FCC was happy to hear this: while they didn’t immediately ramp up their regulating and sanctioning, they began to do so over her 1980s and 1990s. That said, I feel comfortable in saying that today the case is really better known for Carlin’s routine itself. Blame it on the internet, mass social media, changing social norms, or even self-censoring technology like the V-chip, but most people don’t seem as bothered by the language in the routine any more. Instead they find it funny— it’s a great case to liven up a law school classroom— which I think means that in the end, Carlin was right: what’s considered indecent, and how it is considered indecent, is a funny thing.