ALL HECK HAS BROKEN loose in the radio and television world this week as a result of the Supreme Court's decision Monday in the case involving seven naughty words. The outcome was unexpected. The court, according to many experts, had been regarded as almost certain to hold unconstitutional the warning the Federal Communications Commission had given a radio station for broadcasting a 12-minute-long monologue in which those bad words were used over and over again. But the justices didn't go according to form; they upheld the warning by a vote of 5 to 4. We are glad they did.
This is one of those cases that never should have reached either the Supreme Court or the FCC. The monologue - recorded in a California theater by comedian George Carlin - may be regarded as funny by some; the transcript indicates he was interrupted 83 times by laughter or applause. But its prime appeal is its shock value. (Mr. Carlin used, on the average, one of his self-styled "filthy words" every 10 seconds during those 12 minutes.) Even as part of a program about society's attitude toward language - which is the way the station owner, Pacifica Foundation, described its use - the monologue did not belong on the air, as a matter of policy, in mid-afternoon.
As the court handled the case, the issue is quite narrow. It does not involve the power of the FCC to control the content of radio and television programs. Nor does it involve the power of that agency to censor scripts or prohibit the use at any time of certain words. All it involves is the right of the FCC to warn a broadcaster that it may have trouble getting its license renewed if it deliberately broadcasts a "patently offensive" program at 2 p.m. The time is important. The court made clear that it was not ruling on a broadcast of the same program at 2 a.m., when children, presumably, would not be a potential part of the audience.
Broadcasters had hoped to win in this case a ruling that their First Amendment rights are identical to those of the print media and of public speakers and entertainers. In other words, they sought the right to put on the air at any time any words or pictures that are not obscene. The court rejected that view, noting that broadcasting has "the most limited First Amendment protection" of all the forms of communication. Of the reasons for that distinction, it set out two as relevant to this case: the easy accessibility of children to radio and television programs, and the pervasive presence of those programs in homes where the audience tunes in and out and may be entitled to protection against indecent as well as obscene material.
The immediate reaction of some broadcasting officials and critics is that this decision opens the way for substantial censorship by the FCC and gives station managers an excuse for suppressing realistic news and dramas that pull no punches in their substance or language. The tone of the opinions of Justices John Paul Stevens and Lewis F. Powell seem to suggest just the opposite. Neither suggests that the FCC should require that the occasional dirty word be bleeped out or that programming should always be aimed only at family audiences. Implicit in both opinions is the suggestion that if broadcasters target their audiences (late evenings or, in cable systems, special channels), the permissible range of words and pictures may be much broader than that presented on most stations today. Justice Stevens, in treating the Carlin monologue in part as a nuisance, noted that the court once defined a nuisance as something that "may be merely a right thing in the wrong place."