The passing of George Carlin is old news, but his place in the history of broadcasting, and in the annals of American jurisprudence, will endure for many years to come. Attorney Harry Cole of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth puts Carlin’s inadvertent contribution to the battle over broadcast indecency into perspective, only on TVBR. Just click the headline.
A Legacy for Broadcasters
By Harry Cole
Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, P.L.C.
Comedian George Carlin has passed away, but he will live on many ways. For broadcasters, Carlin’s most noteworthy legacy is the FCC’s indecency policy in all its tortured, blurred inconsistency. It was Carlin, after all, who created the notion that there might be seven words that you couldn’t say on the public airwaves. The Commission had certainly never said anything close to that before Carlin created and recorded his piece, or before WBAI broadcast it. But by crafting a comedic monologue based on the fictional premise that there did exist some absolute FCC ban against the broadcast of certain words, Carlin managed to draw the FCC into embracing his notion. So Carlin’s art became the FCC’s reality.
The irony, of course, is that Carlin’s monologue itself illustrates the futility of any broadbrush governmental proscription on language. As the routine hilariously – and irrefutably – demonstrates, words are just words, and they mean no more and no less than what the user intends them to mean. It is a fool’s errand to try to limit the ability of people to communicate their own ideas through words of their own choosing. And it is fundamentally antithetical to the premise underlying the First Amendment and the ultimate strength of our democratic process.
The Commission has fumbled and stumbled in trying to develop some coherent indecency policy over the last 35 years or so, ever since Carlin fantasized that there might be some such policy and then proceeded to skewer that imagined policy in his monologue. While the Supreme Court tried to do the FCC a favor in 1978 by interpreting the Commission’s initial decision narrowly, the Commission has, over the years, largely ignored that narrowing. The result is, among other things, the current Golden Globes policy that flatly criminalizes the broadcast utterance of “fuck” or “shit” – unless, of course, those words occur in Saving Private Ryan.
Carlin got it right in his monologue. Not that there was an FCC policy, or that there should be an FCC policy, but rather that such a policy would be pointless and meaningless and contrary to our ability to communicate with one another. While Carlin probably did not approve of the path the FCC has taken in response to his monologue, Carlin must certainly have appreciated the rich irony of that path and the effectiveness with which it underscored his essential point