June 23, 2008
George Carlin (E. Pablo Kosmicki/Courtesy The Associated Press)

George Carlin (E. Pablo Kosmicki/Courtesy The Associated Press)

Remembering George Carlin

“Seven Dirty Words” was landmark free-speech case

“I believe you can joke about anything.”

It was a window to his mind and his world.  It was why George Carlin was who he was — a funny, irreverent, insightful and carefree comic who didn’t let word taboos silence him.

Carlin took great pride in lampooning hypocrites and hypocrisy. He died June 22, 2008, at age 71.

In November 2008, Carlin will posthumously receive the Kennedy Center’s prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Carlin made us think about how, on the one hand, the nation’s highest cultural award could be bestowed on a comedian, and on the other hand, those who dared to broadcast his ribald satire on the airwaves could continue to be penalized. Watch this video of Carlin and other comedians discussing free speech at one of the First Amendment Center's "Speaking Freely" programs.

It all began 34 years ago in October 1973. One of Carlin’s colorful monologues — “Filthy Words” — was broadcast uncensored around 2 p.m. on New York’s WBAI radio, owned by Pacifica Foundation. A member of the New York chapter of Morality in Media was driving with his 15-year-old son and heard portions of the 12-minute monologue. He complained to the Federal Communications Commission.

In the case, Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could “impose its notions of propriety on the whole of the American people.”  Or that’s how Justice William Brennan described it in his dissent.

In its defense, Pacifica maintained that Carlin was “a significant social satirist” who “like Twain … examines the language of ordinary people. …Carlin is not mouthing obscenities, he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our attitudes toward those words,” Pacifica said.

The FCC didn’t buy it. Carlin’s Twain-like message was “patently offensive,” it said. The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, agreed.

The ironies surrounding the case were ripe for Carlin-like commentary.  The justice who wrote the lead opinion, John Paul Stevens, appended a transcript of the “Filthy Words” to his opinion.  So there, in the official reports of the Supreme Court, anyone can read what his or her ears cannot hear on the radio.

Even more ironic, Justice Stevens was one of the Court’s greatest defenders of free speech.  In 1997, he wrote for the Court when it struck down key portions of the Communications Decency Act as it applied to the Internet. Because of that ruling, adults and children can read, hear or see Carlin performing any and all of his most outrageous bits.

In the tradition of his fallen friend, comedian Lenny Bruce, Carlin once said: “I think the role of comedy is to go after the powerful people, to puncture the pretentiousness and pompousness of the privileged. That’s what comedy and satire have always been about.”

For more information on this and other First Amendment issues, visit the Newseum’s Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery or www.firstamendmentcenter.org.

Ron Collins is co-author with David M. Skover of “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” (Sourcebooks, 2002)

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