Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation

Decision Date03 July 1978
Docket NumberNo. 77-528,77-528
Citation57 L.Ed.2d 1073,438 U.S. 726,98 S.Ct. 3026
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

A radio station of respondent Pacifica Foundation (hereinafter respondent) made an afternoon broadcast of a satiric monologue, entitled "Filthy Words," which listed and repeated a variety of colloquial uses of "words you couldn't say on the public airwaves." A father who heard the broadcast while driving with his young son complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which, after forwarding the complaint for comment to and receiving a response from respondent, issued a declaratory order granting the complaint. While not imposing formal sanctions, the FCC stated that the order would be "associated with the station's license file, and in the event subsequent complaints are received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress." In its memorandum opinion, the FCC stated that it intended to "clarify the standards which will be utilized in considering" the growing number of complaints about indecent radio broadcasts, and it advanced several reasons for treating that type of speech differently from other forms of expression. The FCC found a power to regulate indecent broadcasting, inter alia, in 18 U.S.C. § 1464 (1976 ed.), which forbids the use of "any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communications." The FCC characterized the language of the monologue as "patently offensive," though not necessarily obscene, and expressed the opinion that it should be regulated by principles analogous to the law of nuisance where the "law generally speaks to channeling behavior rather than actually prohibiting it." The FCC found that certain words in the monologue depicted sexual and excretory activities in a particularly offensive manner, noted that they were broadcast in the early afternoon "when children are undoubtedly in the audience," and concluded that the language as broadcast was indecent and prohibited by § 1464. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed, one judge concluding that the FCC's action was invalid either on the ground that the order constituted censorship, which was expressly forbidden by § 326 of the Communications Act of 1934, or on the ground that the FCC's opinion was the functional equivalent of a rule, and as such was "overbroad." Another judge, who felt that § 326's censorshi provision did not apply to broadcasts forbidden by § 1464, concluded that § 1464, construed narrowly as it has to be, covers only language that is obscene or otherwise unprotected by the First Amendment. The third judge, dissenting, concluded that the FCC had correctly condemned the daytime broadcast as indecent. Respondent contends that the broadcast was not indecent within the meaning of the statute because of the absence of prurient appeal. Held : The judgment is reversed. Pp. 734-741; 748-750; 761-762; 3046-3047.

181 U.S.App.D.C. 132, 556 F.2d 9, reversed.

Mr. Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I-III and IV-C, finding:

1. The FCC's order was an adjudication under 5 U.S.C. § 554(e) (1976 ed.), the character of which was not changed by the general statements in the memorandum opinion; nor did the FCC's action constitute rulemaking or the promulgation of regulations. Hence, the Court's review must focus on the FCC's determination that the monologue was indecent as broadcast. Pp. 734-735.

2. Section 326 does not limit the FCC's authority to sanction licensees who engage in obscene, indecent, or profane broadcasting. Though the censorship ban precludes editing proposed broadcasts in advance, the ban does not deny the FCC the power to review the content of completed broadcasts. Pp. 735-738.

3. The FCC was warranted in concluding that indecent language within the meaning of § 1464 was used in the challenged broadcast. The words "obscene, indecent, or profane" are in the disjunctive, implying that each has a separate meaning. Though prurient appeal is an element of "obscene," it is not an element of "indecent," which merely refers to noncomformance with accepted standards of morality. Contrary to respondent's argument, this Court in Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 94 S.Ct. 2887, 41 L.Ed.2d 590, has not foreclosed a reading of § 1464 that authorizes a proscription of "indecent" language that is not obscene, for the statute involved in that case, unlike § 1464, focused upon the prurient, and dealt primarily with printed matter in sealed envelopes mailed from one individual to another, whereas § 1464 deals with the content of public broadcasts. Pp. 738-741.

4. Of all forms of communication, broadcasting has the most limited First Amendment protection. Among the reasons for specially treating indecent broadcasting is the uniquely pervasive presence that medium of expression occupies in the lives of our people. Broadcasts extend into the privacy of the home and it is impossible completely to avoid those that are patently offensive. Broadcasting, moreover, is uniquely accessible to children. Pp. 748-750.

Mr. Justice STEVENS, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, and Mr. Justice REHNQUIST, concluded in Parts IV-A and IV-B:

1. The FCC's authority to proscribe this particular broadcast is not invalidated by the possibility that its construction of the statute may deter certain hypothetically protected broadcasts containing patently offensive references to sexual and excretory activities. Cf. Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367, 89 S.Ct. 1794, 23 L.Ed.2d 371. Pp. 742-743.

2. The First Amendment does not prohibit all governmental regulation that depends on the content of speech. Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 52, 39 S.Ct. 247, 249, 63 L.Ed. 470. The content of respondent's broadcast, which was "vulgar," "offensive," and "shocking," is not entitled to absolute constitutional protection in all contexts; it is therefore necessary to evaluate the FCC's action in light of the context of that broadcast. Pp. 744-748.

Mr. Justice POWELL, joined by Mr. Justice BLACKMUN, concluded that the FCC's holding does not violate the First Amendment, though, being of the view that Members of this Court are not free generally to decide on the basis of its content which speech protected by the First Amendment is most valuable and therefore deserving of Fi st Amendment protection, and which is less "valuable" and hence less deserving of protection, he is unable to join Part IV-B (or IV-A) of the opinion. Pp. 761-762.

Joseph A. Marino, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Harry M. Plotkin, Washington, D. C., for respondent Pacifica Foundation.

Louis F. Claiborne, Washington, D. C., for respondent United States.

Mr. Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court (Parts I, II, III and IV-C) and an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Mr. Justice REHNQUIST joined (Parts IV-A and IV-B).

This case requires that we decide whether the Federal Communications Commission has any power to regulate a radio broadcast that is indecent but not obscene.

A satiric humorist named George Carlin recorded a 12-minute monologue entitled "Filthy Words" before a live audience in a California theater. He began by referring to his thoughts about "the words you couldn't say on the public, ah, airwaves, um, the ones you definitely wouldn't say, ever." He proceeded to list those words and repeat them over and over again in a variety of colloquialisms. The transcript of the recording, which is appended to this opinion, indicates frequent laughter from the audience.

At about 2 o'clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, October 30, 1973, a New York radio station, owned by respondent Pacifica Foundation, broadcast the "Filthy Words" monologue. A few weeks later a man, who stated that he had heard the broadcast while driving with his young son, wrote a letter complaining to the Commission. He stated that, although he could perhaps understand the "record's being sold for private use, I certainly cannot understand the broadcast of same over the air that, supposedly, you control."

The complaint was forwarded to the station for comment. In its response, Pacifica explained that the monologue had been played during a program about contemporary society's attitude toward language and that, immediately before its broadcast, listeners had been advised that it included "sensitive language which might be regarded as offensive to some." Pacifica characterized George Carlin as "a significant social satirist" who "like Twain and Sahl before him, 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 towards those words." Pacifica stated that it was not aware of any other complaints about the broadcast.

On February 21, 1975, the Commission issued a declaratory order granting the complaint and holding that Pacifica "could have been the subject of administrative sanctions." 56 F.C.C.2d 94, 99. The Commission did not impose formal sanctions, but it did state that the order would be "associated with the station's license file, and in the event that subsequent complaints are received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress." 1 In its memorandum opinion the commission stated that it intended to "clarify the standards which will be utilized in considering" the growing number of complaints about indecent speech on the airwaves. Id., at 94. Advancing several reasons for treating broadcast speech differently from other forms of expression,2 the Commission found a power to regulate indecent broadcasting in two statutes: 18 U.S.C. § 1464 (1976 ed.), which forbids the use of "any obscene,...

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