Today is the 33rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark First Amendment decision, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. By a narrow 5-4 vote in this 1978 decision, the Court held that the FCC could impose fines on radio and TV 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.
Back in 2008, when Pacifica turned 30, I penned a 6-part series critiquing the decision and discussing its impact on First Amendment jurisprudence:
- Part 1: General overview.
- Part 2: A short history of FCC indecency regulation.
- Part 3: The misguided logic of the Court’s reasoning in Pacifica.
- Part 4: How that logic of Pacifica is even more misguided in light of modern developments.
- Part 5: A joint editorial on the issue I co-authored with John Morris of Center for Democracy & Technology.
- Part 6: Wrap-up and further reading.
In addition to those essays, I brought all my thinking together on this issue in a 2007 law review article, “Why Regulate Broadcasting: Toward a Consistent First Amendment Standard for the Information Age.” Importantly, this could be the last year we “celebrate” a Pacifica anniversary. Earlier this week, on the same day it handed down a historical video game free speech win, the Supreme Court announced that next term it will examine the constitutionality of FCC efforts to regulate “indecent” speech on broadcast TV and radio. Here’s hoping the Supreme Court takes the sensible step of undoing the unjust regulatory mess they created with Pacifica 33 years ago. Speech is speech is speech. Lawmakers should not be regulating it differently just because it’s on TV or radio instead of cable TV, satellite radio or TV, physical media, or the Internet.
Of course, there will always be those who respond by arguing that speech regulation is important because “it’s for the children.” But raising children, and determining what they watch or listen to, is a quintessential parental responsibility. Personally, I think the most important thing I can do for my children is to preserve our nation’s free speech heritage and fight for their rights to enjoy the full benefits of the First Amendment when they become adults. Until then, I will focus on raising my children as best I can. And if because of the existence of the First Amendment they see or hear things I find troubling, offensive or rude, then I will sit down with them and talk to them in the most open, understanding and loving fashion I can about the realities of the world around them. But I don’t want anyone else doing that job for me.
Meanwhile, I leave you with The Man himself, George Carlin, the greatest linguistic comic who ever did walk this Earth. I miss George.