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March 25, 2016

George Carlin's 'Motherfucker' Enters National Recording Registry

WASHINGTON, D.C.—This year marks a sexual milestone for the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry: It has "inducted" George Carlin's 1972 record album Class Clown, which prominently features the monologue that sparked one of the most important (and incredibly fractured*) free speech cases in Supreme Court history, Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, "The Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television." The induction is a landmark, because the Registry is noticably lacking in anything approaching sexual speech. The closest it comes is its 2010 recognition of "beat comic" Mort Sahl's album At Sunset, which has plenty of risque political humor but nothing approaching Carlin's honesty regarding language. The Supreme Court case began when Carlin delivered a 12-minute monologue titled "Dirty Words" at a theater in California—the same monologue for which he was busted for obscenity in Milwaukee in July 1972. The California performance, before a live audience which responded with plenty of laughter, was later broadcast on the afternoon of October 30, 1973, on Pacifica Foundation's New York radio station WBAI—and that's when its problems really started. In the monologue, after Carlin points out that words like bitch, bastard, hell and damn were okay for television broadcast, he continues, "so I have to figure out which ones you couldn't and ever and it came down to seven but the list is open to amendment, and in fact, has been changed, uh, by now, ha, a lot of people pointed things out to me, and I noticed some myself. The original seven words were shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother-fucker, and tits. Those are the ones that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and (laughter) maybe, even bring us, God help us, peace without honor (laughter) um, and a bourbon."(The entire monologue can be heard here, and can be found transcribed more or less accurately in the Appendix to the high court's opinion here.) In short, while the Court found that while Section 29 of the Radio Act of 1927 provided that, "Nothing in this Act shall be understood or construed to give the licensing authority the power of censorship over the radio communications or signals transmitted by any radio station, and no regulation or condition shall be promulgated or fixed by the licensing authority which shall interfere with the right of free speech by means of radio communications," it decided that the concluding sentence of that portion of the act, "No person within the jurisdiction of the United States shall utter any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication," gave the FCC license to fine Pacifica for having aired the Carlin monologue during a time when children could have heard it. It's a decision that has kept all broadcast media in the U.S. in a near-infantile state when it comes to discussing sexual issues, not to mention words that most Americans use at least several times a week in their daily conversation. (To be fair, over the past two or three years, several primetime television programs have indeed used such words as "shit," "bullshit," "piss" and "tits" with no FCC fines resulting.) However, even the Supremes attempted to soften the blow to free speech in the opinion's concluding paragraph: "It is appropriate, in conclusion, to emphasize the narrowness of our holding. This case does not involve a two-way radio conversation between a cab driver and a dispatcher, or a telecast of an Elizabethan comedy. We have not decided that an occasional expletive in either setting would justify any sanction or, indeed, that this broadcast would justify a criminal prosecution. The Commission's decision rested entirely on a nuisance rationale under which context is all-important. The concept requires consideration of a host of variables. The time of day was emphasized by the Commission. The content of the program in which the language is used will also affect the composition of the audience, and differences between radio, television, and perhaps closed-circuit transmissions, may also be relevant. As Mr. Justice Sutherland wrote, a 'nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place—like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.' 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." [Citations removed] But despite the holding in Pacifica, it's clear that Carlin was one of a handful of comics (including Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and others) who were essential to this country's cultural growth—and its growing acceptance of the fact that sex and sexual speech are parts of life that should be beyond the government's power to control. *Here's how the official Supreme Court opinion is parsed in law books: "STEVENS, J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I-III and IV-C, in which BURGER, C. J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, and in all but Parts IV-A and IV-B of which BLACKMUN and POWELL, JJ., joined, and an opinion as to Parts IV-A and IV-B, in which BURGER, C. J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined."

 
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