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FCC v. Pacifica Foundation

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FCC v. Pacifica Foundation

FCC v. Pacifica Foundation
Argued April 18–19, 1978
Decided July 3, 1978
Full case name Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, et al.
Citations 438 U.S. 726 (more)
98 S. Ct. 3026; 57 L. Ed. 2d 1073; 1978 U.S. LEXIS 135; 43 Rad. Reg. 2d (P & F) 493; 3 Media L. Rep. 2553
Prior history Complain granted, 56 F.C.C.2d 94 (1975); reversed, 181 U.S.App.D.C. 132, 556 F.2d 9 (1977); certiorari granted, 434 U.S. 1008
Because of the pervasive nature of broadcasting, it has less First Amendment protection than other forms of communication. The F.C.C. was justified in concluding that Carlin's "Filthy Words" broadcast, though not obscene, was indecent, and subject to restriction.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Stevens, joined by Burger, Blackmun, Rehnquist, Powell
Concurrence Powell, joined by Blackmun
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall
Dissent Stewart, joined by Brennan, White, Marshall
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I; 18 U.S.C. § 1464

Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978) is a landmark United States Supreme Court decision that defined the power of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over indecent material as applied to broadcasting.


  • Facts 1
  • Holding 2
  • Impact 3
  • See also 4
  • Further reading 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


In 1973 a father complained to the FCC that his son had heard the Filthy Words" broadcast one afternoon over WBAI, a Pacifica Foundation FM radio station in New York City. Pacifica received censure from the FCC, in the form of a letter of reprimand, for allegedly violating FCC regulations which prohibited broadcasting indecent material.

In reference to this case, a poster in a WBAI broadcast booth warns radio broadcasters against using the seven dirty words.


The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC action in 1978, by a vote of 5 to 4, ruling that the routine was "indecent but not obscene". The Court accepted as compelling the government's interests in:

  • Shielding children from potentially offensive material, and
  • Ensuring that unwanted speech does not enter one's home.

The Court stated that the FCC had the authority to prohibit such broadcasts during hours when children were likely to be among the audience, and gave the FCC broad leeway to determine what constituted indecency in different contexts.


In 1997, Pacifica Radio "Living Room" host Larry Bensky prefaced an interview with Carlin by saying: "George Carlin, you're a very unusual guest for Pacifica Radio. You're probably the only person in the United States that we don't have to give The Carlin Warning to about which words you can't say on this program, because it's named after you."[1][2]

See also

Further reading

  • Tremblay, R. Wilfred (2003). "FCC v. Pacifica Foundation". In Parker, Richard A. (ed.). Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions. Tuscaloosa, AL:  


  1. ^ Bensky, Larry (4 June 1997), Living Room : Interview With Comedian George Carlin, Pacifica Radio Archives, retrieved 18 February 2014 
  2. ^ Bensky, Larry (4 June 1997), PZ0624b Radical Comedians Box Set DISC TWO, Pacifica Radio Archives, retrieved 18 February 2014 

External links

  • Text of the decision courtesy of FindLaw.
  • Audio of the oral argument and decision 77-528
  • First Amendment Library entry on FCC v. Pacifica Foundation,  
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