"I always thought it was a wrong-headed decision, one that really made hash of the First Amendment with respect to the broadcast media," says Floyd Abrams, one of the foremost legal authorities on the First Amendment and a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP. "If anything, now it makes less sense than its proponents thought it did at the time it was issued because now we have cable TV, which is not subject to the same rules."
Since the ruling, the media landscape has become unrecognizable. The rise of premium television such as HBO as an outlet for profanity, grouped with the inception of the Parental Guidelines system in 1997 and the FCC's lax enforcement against profanity on cable TV after 10 p.m., have continued to fuel the post-Pacifica debate about the place of indecent language in broadcast media. The presence of cable TV and the Internet alone has done significant damage to the assumption made in the Pacifica case that broadcasting was both uniquely pervasive and uniquely accessible to children, and that the FCC has the right to censor "indecency."
Tim Brooks, a TV and radio historian and former TV executive, says that though it's become more acceptable to say the "Seven Dirty Words" in broadcast media and the culture at large, American society still has an uneasy relationship with profanity.
"Those seven words are still ones you can't say on TV," says Hendra, editor of the satirical website The Final Edition. "On this anniversary of that great, wonderfully popular piece, nothing has happened."
Detractors of Carlin's iconic act maintain that the Supreme Court's ruling was needed to help preserve social values, even as society's standards have declined. Patrick Trueman, CEO and president of Morality in Media, the same group that John Douglas was a part of when he first reported WBAI for airing Carlin, says, "The ruling in Pacifica was an important one for people who want to uphold the standard of decency in society. If the FCC was vigilant, you wouldn't see the networks pushing the envelope, but they do because they aren't interested in upholding standards of decency and are only interested in making money and competing with cable TV. You get to this point where the FCC has not done its job adequately and networks have not done their job. We've come to a point of absurdity."
Both proponents and opponents of the essence of "Seven Dirty Words" understand the cultural significance of the ongoing FCC v. Fox Television Stations Supreme Court case, which examines the FCC's structure for overseeing and regulating speech and whether the current model is unconstitutionally vague. Bono, Cher, and Nicole Richie all said the f-word during awards programs on Fox and NBC between 2002 and 2003, reigniting decency dustups about "fleeting expletives"—sexual or excretory references that are unintentionally broadcast because the words weren't expected to be said. In April 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the ban on "fleeting expletives," but, in the words of the majority opinion, was unable to "definitively settle the First Amendment implications of allowing a federal agency to censor broadcasts." The case was sent back to the lower courts for reexamination of the constitutionality. (Insert one of the "Seven Dirty Words" here.) In July 2010 the Second Circuit said it was unconstitutional for the FCC to prohibit "fleeting expletives," thus setting the stage for the upcoming decision from the Supreme Court in the continuation of FCC v. Fox this summer. Not quite as big of a summer blockbuster as The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, but even more significant.