Barney Rosset: A free-speech warrior passes away

It’s always sad to be introduced to a remarkable life through an obituary. This week, it happened again.

Book publisher Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press pushed the limits of free expression by giving a home to controversial works of literature by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and William Burroughs, died on Tuesday. He was 89.

I had never heard of him until USA TODAY published the extensive, well-written AP obituary, which revealed how important Rosset was to the First Amendment:

Rosset waged a long and costly war on behalf of free expression. When he started Grove, his wish list included two erotic books, both decades old, that had never been distributed unexpurgated in the United States: Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

In 1954 a copy of Chatterley was mailed from Paris to New York. Officials seized it and charged Rosset with promoting “indecent and lascivious thoughts,” a policy that dated back to obscenity legislation passed in the 1870s. Rosset sued the U.S. Post Office in 1959 and his attorney, Charles Rembar, crafted a defense based on a Supreme Court decision written two years earlier by Justice William Brennan that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guarantees.”

A federal judge, Frederick van Pelt Bryan, ruled in Rosset’s favor. An appeals court upheld Judge Bryan and the government declined to take the case to the Supreme Court. The Post Office’s ability to declare a work obscene had effectively been ended.

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie also reminds us that beyond his efforts on behalf of free speech, Rosset also broadened America’s literary palate:

If you grew up interested in literature and writing and a world bigger than the one you were immediately born into, you owe a debt to Rossett and people like him …  In a pre-Internet, pre-everything-at-your-fingertips-world, books weren’t just frigates (as Emily Dickinson would have it), they were battleships and aircraft carriers, capable of completely rescuing you from whatever isolated bunker you called home.

Very true. Thanks again, Barney.


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