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Words Are All We Have

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June 23, 2008

George Carlin, a warrior for the First Amendment who exercised his right to free speech even after being arrested for it, died last night.

In his landmark comedy routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” Carlin reminded everyone of the arbitrariness of government censorship:

There are some people that aren’t into all the words. There are some people who would have you not use certain words. Yeah, there are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them that you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous, to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven. Bad words. That’s what they told us they were, remember? ‘That’s a bad word.’ ‘Awwww.’ There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions.

That routine landed New York radio station WBAI in the Supreme Court in the 1970s. The station was censured and fined by the FCC for airing Carlin’s bit, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1978, ruling that “of all forms of communication, broadcasting has the most limited First Amendment protection.”

Carlin was arrested for violating obscenity laws when he performed the routine live in 1972; the charges were later dropped on free speech grounds.

Today’s comedians, radio show hosts and television shows owe so much to Carlin’s groundbreaking work. But while we’ve come a long way since the ’70s, there is still plenty of work to be done. Attempts to censor protected speech arise every day.

A new Oregon law threatens booksellers, librarians, community-based organizations, health-care providers, parents and other family members with serious consequences for providing materials that are deemed “sexually explicit” to a minor (including books like It’s Perfectly Normal, a sex education book widely regarded as among the best available).

The FCC is attempting to crack down on the broadcast of “fleeting expletives”, leveraging large fines against broadcasting companies for use of even isolated profanities aired on their stations. The Supreme Court will hear an appeal in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, et al. after a lower court found the FCC failed to provide adequate justification for its regulations.

And the federal government continues its attempts to censor protected speech online with the so-called “Child Online Protection Act,” which would impose draconian criminal sanctions, with penalties of up to $50,000 per day and up to six months imprisonment, for online material acknowledged as protected by the First Amendment for adults, but deemed “harmful to minors.”

There will always be speech that is deemed offensive to some, and that is exactly why we must fight to protect free speech for all. Honor George Carlin and all the other free speech warriors out there by standing up for the First Amendment and the right of all people to speak their mind.

You can watch the Seven Dirty Words routine on YouTube. But I should probably warn you that, unless you’re lucky enough to work for the ACLU, it’s not “safe for work.”

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