George Carlin, the comedian whose famous routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" sparked a free speech controversy that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, died yesterday at 71.
In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978) the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s power to regulate so-called "indecent" broadcasts such as Carlin’s monologue. The Court’s decision was based primarily on what it held to be the unique status of broadcast speech, which "confronts the citizen, not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home," and which "is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read." The Court explicitly emphasized the "narrowness" of its holding in Pacifica. Of his role in this decision, Carlin said that "my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I’m perversely kind of proud of."
Carlin’s comedy is also memorialized in Barnard College’s "posting policy," which FIRE named our Speech Code of the Month for April 2006 and which still remains in force to this day. That policy provides that:
[T]he following words cannot appear on any posted information at Barnard – shit, piss, suck, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, cocksucker and tits.
With the exception of "suck," which Barnard has apparently deemed the eighth dirty word, that list comes directly from Carlin’s famous monologue.
George Carlin and his irreverent, politically incorrect comedy are forever a part of the American free speech landscape, and he will be missed.