Obscenity: Redeeming Social Value

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"I'm not a crier or a whiner," Comedian Lenny Bruce said after a New York Criminal Court convicted him on an obscenity charge in November 1964. "I respect the law, and it will eventually vindicate me." Although Bruce became a minor martyr and hero to some people, few believed that he would eventually beat the rap. Last week he did—18 months after he had been found dead in Hollywood of a probable overdose of drugs.

Bruce's conviction grew out of an arrest for delivering a scatological monologue at the Café Au Go Go, a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. In the criminal trial, Judges John M. Murtagh and J. Randall Creel said that Bruce had "clearly debased sex and insulted it," in addition to using basic English synonyms for incest, sodomy and excrement. Thus, they ruled, Bruce had exceeded all three of the U.S. Supreme Court guidelines that currently determine legal obscenity. These guidelines state that material is obscene if it appeals dominantly to prurient interest, breaches contemporary standards relating to the description or presentation of sexual matters, and "utterly" lacks redeeming social value.

Au Go Go Owner Howard Solomon, who was convicted in the criminal trial along with Bruce, appealed to a New York appellate court. There, Presiding Justice Saul S. Streit held that the criminal court had erred in deciding Bruce's routine was devoid of social significance. While agreeing that the act was coarse and profane beyond the bounds of acceptable candor, Judge Streit said that "integral parts of the performance included comments on the problems of contemporary society, religious hypocrisy, racial prejudices and human tensions." In effect, the reversal of Solomon's conviction served to vindicate Bruce as well.