Next Thursday, July 3rd will mark the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark First Amendment decision, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. Sadly, but somewhat ironically, the anniversary of this decision comes just a few days after we lost America’s greatest modern social satirist George Carlin, whose infamous “seven dirty words” monologue prompted the Supreme Court’s Pacifica decision. After a Pacifica Foundation radio station aired Carlin’s monologue and the FCC took action against that station, a court battle ensued regarding whether the agency had the authority to censor “indecent” content on broadcast radio and television stations.
Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court handed down its Pacifica decision 30 years ago, the First Amendment lost. By a narrow 5-4 vote, the court held that the FCC could impose fines on broadcasters who aired indecent content during daytime and early evening hours. The Court used some rather tortured reasoning to defend the proposition that broadcast platforms deserved lesser First Amendment treatment than all other media platforms. The lynchpin of the decision was the so-called “pervasiveness theory,” which held that broadcast speech was “uniquely pervasive” and an “intruder” in the home, and therefore demanded special, artificial content restrictions.
Over the course of the next week, I plan on posting some thoughts about that twisted logic and the legacy of the Pacifica decision in general. In part 2, I’ll sketch out the broad outlines of FCC indecency enforcement over the past 70 years. In part 3, I’ll be highlighting some of the original deficiencies of the “pervasiveness doctrine.” Part 4 will highlight the irrelevancy of Pacifica and the pervasiveness doctrine in light of recent technological developments. These (and potentially other) installments will highlight why Pacifica was always bad law and is even more misguided and unjust in light of recent marketplace developments.