FCC v. Pacifica Foundation

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In FCC v. Pacifica Found., 438 U.S. 726 (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the authority of the FCC to penalize broadcasters for airing indecent speech. The Court held that obscene, indecent, and profane have distinct meanings in 18 U.S.C. § 1464, which provides that "[w]hoever utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both." The Court held that this statute authorizes the FCC to sanction speech without showing that it satisfied the elements of obscenity. Id. at 739-41.

By a narrow 5-4 margin, the Court rejected Pacifica's constitutional challenges. It held that "of all forms of communication, it is broadcasting that has received the most limited First Amendment protection" because the broadcast medium is a "uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans" that extends into the privacy of the home and is "uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read." Id. at 748-749.

The dispute concerned the broadcast of comedian George Carlin's "Filthy Words" monologue. The Court held that the FCC could, consistent with the First Amendment, regulate indecent material like the Carlin monologue. "We simply hold that when the Commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene." Id. at 750-51.