Al Bendich, the lawyer who fought successfully for free speech in obscenity cases over the banning of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and the imprisonment of nightclub performer Lenny Bruce, has passed away at 85. The cause of death was a heart attack, according to his wife, Pamela Bendich, as reported by the New York Times.
In 1957, Just two years out of law school and a staff member of the North California American Civil Liberties Union, Bendich joined the legal team that defended poet and friend of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had been brought up on obscenity charges for selling copies of Ginsberg’s “Howl” in his City Lights bookstore. Bendich faced a formidable challenge since earlier that year, the Supreme Court Case, Roth v. United States, resulted in a ruling that certain forms of obscene speech were immune from First Amendment protections, since they were considered as a public threat. Nanci Strossen, a former president of the A.C.L.U, explained that “It said that this subcategory of sexually oriented expression is completely beyond the First Amendment pale– it can be absolutely criminalized, and that had an enormously chilling impact.”
Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” contains graphic depictions of sexual acts, homosexual and heterosexual, and many references to drug use. Ferlinghetti’s trial had no jury and Judge Clayton W. Horn, who was a Sunday school teacher in his spare time, presided. Jake Ehrlich was at the head of the defense team, and read salacious classics like “Moll Flanders” to the judge, “to prove this was nothing new, ” Ferlinghetti said in an interview, and he added that it was Al Bendich’s arguments on the constitutional points in the case that created a victory for the defense and free speech. Bendich wrote the memorandum which the judge consulted when he made his ruling that “Howl” had “some redeeming social importance and therefore, was “not obscene.”
Al Bendich’s second historic case was following the arrest of Lenny Bruce in 1961 on charges of obscenity during his performance at a San Francisco nightclub. Although Judge Horn was presiding again, and this seemed good for the defense, but Lenny Bruce demanded a jury trial because “Bruce had this romanticized view of people, ” said Ronald Collins, co-author of “The Trials of Lenny Bruce.” Bendich’s strategy to win over the jury was to have a large number of expert witnesses, such as sociologists, who will testify that lewdness does have its place in humor, and Bendich also wrote jury instructions, which were instrumental in securing a victory for Lenny Bruce.