The seven words you can't say
Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother-fucker, and tits
Why? Because the FCC said you can't, that's why.
How did they decide on those words? Was there a committee full of Tourette Syndrome bureaucrats who cursed and wrote the really good ones on a blackboard? Did Congress pass an act that those particular words were no-nos, but words like "twat" were ok? Nope. Comedian George Carlin decided on those words.
What? George Carlin, the funny old bald guy? Yep. Here's the story:
Carlin had an album, Class Clown, released in 1973. On it, there is a routine called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." The next album, Occupation: Foole, had a sequel called "Filthy Words." Carlin begins "Filthy Words" with, "I was thinking one night about the words you couldn't say on the public, ah, airwaves, um, the ones you definitely wouldn't say, ever." At that time, 1973, there was no regulation of what you could and couldn't say, he was just thinking of words that he had never heard and never expected to hear. The whole routine is pokes at the way we use curse words and how offensive people think they are when they are so commonly used. He announces that the "Seven Deadly Words" are "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits." He rationalizes those particular choices, and why other words, such as damn and hell aren't on the list. It was a funny routine by a funny guy, but held as much legal significance as when he said that we should bring back crucifixion.
That is, of course, until New York radio station WBAI played the 12 minute routine on air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received a single complaint from a father who had listened to the routine with his son (family time!). It must have been nicely worded, because the FCC sent WBAI a "Declaratory Order" that they were forbidden from broadcasting such language "at times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience." The FCC did not fine the station, the letter was sent as a warning. The FCC said that if it received further complaints, it would fine the station.
The company that owned WBAI, Pacifica, appealed the order contending that Carlin's speech was protected under the First Amendment as was their broadcast of it. The District of Columbia Circuit Court reversed the order agreeing that the speech was protected. The FCC then appealed to the Supreme Court and won 5-4 in 1978. The Supreme Court said that the FCC had the right to sanction and fine broadcasters because of the pervasive nature of broadcasting.
The Supreme Court defined indecency as "language that describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast of the medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs." So, in practice, pretty much any swear word could be offensive. But for all practical purposes, the censored words were taken right from Carlin's speech. Those seven words were forever inscribed by Supreme Court decision as (as Carlin put it), "the ones you definitely wouldn't say, ever."
In practice, the FCC fines for "fuck" and "shit" but not "bitch" and "ass." The FCC can only fine broadcasts which means that cable television is not censored due to government regulations but due to the channel's own decency guidelines. This was recently put to the test, as in United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group in 2000.
The current fine is $7000 per infraction, which was lowered from $12,500 in 1997. This is probably because swear words are more common and less vulgar and because the fine alone was an incentive for some people to swear, and some people to listen.
The following rules apply to broadcasts in America as regulated by the FCC:
Obscene broadcasts are prohibited at all times. Obscene material meets all of the following three tests: (a) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law, (c) the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Basically, obscene material is pornographic or similarly suggestive sexual material.
Indecent Broadcasts Restricted to 10 P.M. - 6 A.M. Indecent is as defined by the Supreme Court in their decision: language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.
It should be noted that some uses of "fuck" (such as using the word as an action verb meaning sexual intercourse) can be considered obscene, but "shit," being a excretory activity, cannot. Women's breasts and all genitalia are considered obscene, so you will never see that on television until "contemporary community standards" get lower.