It was forty years ago this Sunday that comedian George Carlin recorded the Class Clown album which five years later would inadvertently provoke the Supreme Court to canonize seven simple words as the apotheosis of American verbal vulgarity. That case, FCC v Pacifica, would come to be known as the “seven dirty words” ruling, named for Carlin’s routine. The Atlantic’s Timothy Bella marks this anniversary, while exploring the uneasy history of these words and their legal legacy.
As a broadcaster working with volunteer DJs I’ve always had a difficult relationship with this ruling because it’s so widely misunderstood. The official prohibition of indecency on the airwaves has always been messier than a ban on just seven words. So all too often new, and veteran, broadcasters think they can push things just so long as they don’t use the f-word. But, in fact, these specific words are not necessarily banned. The actual rule is that a finding of indecency has depends on context that, "depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” That means programming can be indecent without using any of the nasty seven, or that it’s possible to use one of the dirty words wihout it being indecent. (We’re actually waiting for the Supreme Court to make a ruling on that latter point, a result of the FCC having been particularly zealous in the last decade.)
What is also typically forgotten is that while FCC v Pacifica reified the FCC’s ability to police indecency on the airwaves, it also created what is known as the “Safe Harbor,” for stations to be free to air indecent content. Across the country it is perfectly legal for TV and radio stations to air indecent stuff–including those devilish seven words–from 10 PM to 6 AM, even though very few stations take advantage of the freedom.
Even with an overzealous FCC, here in the 21st century, top rated sitcoms scheduled during the so-called “family hour” think nothing of openly discussing extramartial sex, masturbation and all forms of bodily secretions; nevermind your average morning drive time shock jock. But it’s still the case that radio and television are, in effect, prohibited from using the well-known four letter words to refer to this stuff. Of course, the whole point of Carlin’s bit was to comment on the hypocrisy of society’s need to persecute mere words that at the same time were utterly common, even forty years ago. The Supreme Court only demonstrated that American society wasn’t ready to face up to the disconnect.
The question remains: will 2012 be the year that the seven dirty words get the license to drive their new mid-life crisis Corvette across the American broadcast highways before 10 PM? Is America ready?
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