In a San Francisco courtroom in 1957 a prosecutor described Allen Ginsburg's poem Howl as being, "filthy, vulgar, obscene, and disgusting." The defendant Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher of Howl, was acquitted, and presiding Judge Clayton W. Horn noted in his summary: "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?"
Given that in the 1950's homosexual behavior, a recurrent motif in Ginsburg's epic work, was illegal and a moral outrage among most of the American citizenry, Horn's judicial exoneration must have appeared nearly blasphemous to the masses.
Make no mistake. The content of Howl is rife with explicit, poignant references to all manner of decadent imagery. And yet, this judge, this Sunday school teacher, ruled that the poem was not lewd and the publishing of it violated no laws.
In one of the most pivotal landmark cases of free speech Judge Horn clearly and resolutely declared that behavior commonly considered to be bad manners is not necessarily illegal. Morality, particularly in terms of language, thought, and non physical expression, resists legislation and jurisprudence. While a majority of people may find an individual's words to be morally reprehensible, in the absence of blatant threatening, fraud, libel, such language is protected by law.
Should it be?
Most of us have a sense of when speech crosses the line of our sensibilities. Most of us feel outraged when that ambiguous line is crossed.
Which is more dangerous to a free society, hearing and reading words which we find offensive, or having the authors of such words summarily and legally silenced?
At the same time, there are instances in which we are given the opportunity, the right, and perhaps the responsibility to censure the words that we and those we host are exposed to.
If an individual stands up in the middle of a fundamentalist Christian worship service and begins spewing forth a sexually graphic monologue, are the members of the congregation violating that person's freedom of speech if they escort him or her out the door so that they continue their religious service?
Should members of one political party be required to allow members of another party the same air time in their forums as members of their own party?
Publishers and editors have historically excluded words and writers which they deem inappropriate for their publications. It is their prerogative and their responsibility to exercise discretion in determining who is allowed to publish what under their banner.
As an editor of an internationally distributed corporate newsletter a few years ago, it was my responsibility to cull through a number of submitted articles and determine which ones most nearly conformed to the organization's mission statement and audience. For every article submitted there were many rejected. Did I violate anyone's right to speech?
Freedom of speech is always limited. There are always gatekeepers of some sort, and the gatekeepers are fallible humans who, despite their best efforts, will always make their decisions with some amount of subjectivity. Otherwise they would not be humans. There is no such thing as a one hundred percent objective person.
When Judge Horn found Ginsberg's poem to not be lewd under his interpretation of the law, he was not saying it should be read. He was saying it could be read.
Bad manners are subjective, decency is not a universally accepted set of behaviors, there is no consensus on what constitutes morality.
I have read Howl. I find much of it to be repugnant, not only in its imagery but its sensationalism. Its greatest claim to fame is not what it is says but when it was said. Written today, over half a century later, it would be lost in a sea of similar tasteless chatter, or progressive art, depending on your perspective.
I find this poem to be disgusting. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to read it and find it whatever way I choose.
Every publishing entity must decide what is acceptable or unacceptable writing behavior. If the editor of any forum allows all speech to be published he or she reneges on his or her responsibilities as an editor, a gatekeeper, and will find in short order only a scant audience. Editors must have the courage to enforce their mission statements, to expel and reject writers that their readership finds reprehensible, or else they will find their only readership to be comprised of reprehensible readers.
This does not restrict writers; it simply compels some writers to find publishing forums more suitable to their writing motifs. This is not a violation of their freedom of speech.
More importantly, it is a kind of freedom of reading, a freedom of hearing.
If I want to hear howling, let me go to a place that endorses and promotes it. If I want to howl, let me find a space that welcomes my howls with open arms.