‘Howl’ obscenity prosecution still echoes 50 years later
Fifty years have passed since the publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”
was prosecuted in an obscenity trial in California. The publisher won the case,
which became a landmark decision in free-speech protection.
In 1955 Ginsberg began writing “Howl,” a nearly 3,000-word poem that came to
define the Beat Generation. It broke with contemporary literary tradition in its
form and subject matter — repetitive, run-on sentences discussing drug use,
homosexuality and an alienated generation.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving,
hysterical naked,” the poem begins.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco,
published Howl and Other Poems on Nov. 1, 1956, with the British printer
Villiers. The American Civil Liberties Union assured Ferlinghetti it would
defend him in court if the government challenged the book.
Word spread about the controversial poetry collection, and a government
crackdown began in March 1957 when San Francisco Collector of Customs Chester
MacPhee seized more than 500 copies of Howl and Other Poems.
“The words and the sense of the writing is obscene … you wouldn’t want your
children to come across it,” MacPhee was quoted saying in Howl on Trial: The
Battle for Free Expression (City Lights, 2006).
To avoid the Customs jurisdiction, Ferlinghetti had the next edition printed
in the United States, and Customs soon dropped its case.
In June 1957 undercover inspectors bought copies of Howl and Other
Poems from City Lights Bookstore clerk Shigeyoshi Murao and arrested him,
but those charges were later dropped in court. Store owner Ferlinghetti, who was
out of town, turned himself in after the San Francisco Police Department’s
Juvenile Bureau issued a warrant for his arrest.
The case, People v. Ferlinghetti, went to trial in late August. Judge
Clayton W. Horn presided without a jury in San Francisco Municipal Court.
Ferlinghetti was charged with willfully and lewdly printing, publishing and
selling obscene writings. His ACLU lawyers had to prove that Howl and Other
Poems had literary merit as a whole and did not appeal to “prurient interest,”
according to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in href="http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0354_0476_ZS.html">Roth
v. United States, which a few months earlier had established that the
First Amendment protected literature, but not obscenity.
In the crowded courtroom, Ferlinghetti’s defense team called nine expert
witnesses, including literature professors, editors and book reviewers from the
San Francisco Examiner and The New York Times. They testified that
Howl and Other Poems was a significant and enduring contribution to
society and literature, calling it a “prophetic work” and “thoroughly
Three witnesses took the stand for the prosecution: a San Francisco police
officer, an English professor and a teacher who found the poetry had no literary
On Oct. 3, 1957, Horn found Ferlinghetti not guilty and ruled that Howl
and Other Poems was not obscene but contained “redeeming social importance”
and was therefore protected by the First Amendment.
“The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas
might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they
believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful
ignorance,” Horn wrote in the unpublished opinion.
He defended Ginsberg’s poetic vocabulary as authentic words used by certain
community members, writing: “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if
one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be
real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in
his own words.”
For more than 30 years after the trial, “Howl” was read aloud on the air
until the Federal Communications Commission ruled in the late 1980s that
television and radio stations could be fined for broadcasting indecent material.
Eventually, the courts banned adult material from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., times when
children were likely to be in the audience.
Ginsberg’s archivist and bibliographer Bill Morgan opposes the FCC’s
“I'm surprised that even though a ruling was made 50 years ago stating that ‘Howl’ was protected under the First Amendment, the government today will ignore that and proceed to tag it legally indecent,” Morgan told the First Amendment Center Online. “Today the FCC will not allow radio or television stations to air the entire poem as read by Mr. Ginsberg. Its tactic is to be vague and elusive. The FCC will not say that it believes the poem is unprotected expression, because a court has already ruled to the contrary. Still, the commissioners threaten enormous fines for each ‘bad’ word broadcast.”
“In this country we've been hypnotized into believing that we can exercise free speech, which in fact we can't,” Morgan said.
To exercise free speech and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Howl”
trial victory, Pacifica Radio will air a Webcast today featuring a 1959 reading
of the poem by Ginsberg, who died in 1997. The two-hour program will include
interviews with Ferlinghetti and a panel discussion on censorship led by
Pacifica producer Janet Coleman, with First Amendment Center scholar Ronald K.L.
Collins, poet Bob Holman and Beat Generation scholar and filmmaker Regina
“We’re commemorating ‘Howl’ to honor the memory of the publication’s
liberation,” Coleman told the First Amendment Center Online, “and also to note
the irony that 50 years later we still can’t hear this great poem on the radio.
This is our bow to the FCC and the restrictive, draconian fines that they might
impose. We hope that people will hear the poem and realize the difficulties and
strangulating nature of language censorship and the direct effect of these FCC
Coleman added that the “Howl” program upholds Ginsberg’s lifelong campaign
for free speech.
“Ginsberg himself wanted this poem to be read aloud. He wanted to break this
barrier and considered it a chilling effect because when you censor language,
you censor thought.”
Lydia Hailman King is a University of Mississippi graduate with degrees in
journalism, international studies and French.