LIKE A PREHISTORIC mosquito trapped in amber, the indecency rules enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are an artifact from a distant past loaded with DNA the regulators periodically try to use to engineer new censorship monsters. Most people have at least some passing familiarity with these rules, which were codified in Section 1464 of the U.S. Criminal Code but immortalized by George Carlin's "Filthy Words" monologue. The law has been on the books in various forms since Congress took an early crack at regulating the new medium of radio in 1927, but the corresponding FCC regulations didn't really begin to take shape until the 1970s. That was when Carlin's satirical commentary on the rules--and the Supreme Court's 1978 affirmation of an FCC sanction based on it--set the policy in stone, making it the only legal standard ever created by a stand-up comic.
Congress had no specific plan for what speech would be included when it prohibited "obscene, indecent, and profane" broadcasts. Nor did the Commission have any clear notion of what speech might be banned when it adopted a regulation outlawing "patently offensive" descriptions of "sexual or excretory activities and organs, at times of day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience." But Carlin had some idea what this meant, and he boiled it down to seven words that will "curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and...maybe even bring us, God help us, peace without honor." They are shit, piss, cunt, fuck, cock-sucker, motherfucker, and tits.
Why is tits on the list, you might ask? Because it serves as a monosyllabic exclamation point, and because it is funny. Carlin changed the number of words from time to time as he honed the bit, but the original seven are remembered best because they were the ones the Supreme Court considered in FCCv. Pacifica Foundation.
In that case, the justices narrowly upheld the FCC's decision to admonish (but not fine) the Pacifica station WBAI for airing a discussion program on language that incorporated the Carlin routine. The Court stressed two points. First, indecent (but not obscene) speech is protected by the First Amendment. Second, indecency could not be restricted in traditional media such as newspapers and magazines--but it could be on radio and television. And even then, the FCC couldn't ban indecency altogether: It could only relegate such speech to late-night hours.
The theory was that radio and TV, unlike...