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Federal Communications Commn. v. Pacifica Foundation

United States Supreme Court
438 U.S. 726 (1978)


Facts

A satiric humorist named George Carlin recorded a twelve-minute monologue entitled “Filthy Words” before a live audience in California. The monologue included “words you couldn’t say on the public airwaves,” and proceeded to repeat those words over and over again in a variety of colloquialisms. A New York radio station owned by Pacifica Foundation (Pacifica) (plaintiff) broadcasted the “Filthy Words” monologue. A few weeks later, a man who stated that he had heard the broadcast while driving with his young son, wrote a letter complaining to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (defendant). Pacifica responded to the complaint by stating that the broadcast constituted harmless satire and not obscenity. Additionally, Pacifica noted that before the broadcast aired, a warning message was issued noting that the broadcast might contain material that was offensive to some people. The FCC held Pacifica liable for administrative sanctions. The FCC derived its power to regulate indecent broadcasting under two statutes: 18 U.S.C. §1464, which forbade the use of “any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communications,” and 47 U.S.C. §303(g), which required the FCC to “encourage the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest.” Pacifica challenged the FCC order in federal district court on First Amendment grounds. The district court upheld the FCC’s ruling, but the court of appeals reversed. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

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Holding and Reasoning (Stevens, J.)

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