On this day in history, Judge Frederick Bryan of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of Grove Press and ordered the Post Office to lift all restrictions on sending copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover through the mail. This, in effect, marked the end of the Post Office’s authority — which, until then, it held absolutely — to declare a work of literature “obscene” or to impound copies of those works or prosecute their publishers.
The case began on May 15, 1959, when Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, sued the Post Office for confiscating copies of the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had long been banned for its graphic sex scenes.
As recently as two years prior, the Supreme Court had ruled in Roth v. United States (354 U.S. 476, 1957) — a case involving a bookseller who sent erotic literature through the mail — that the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech did not apply to obscenity. [As an aside, it should be noted that this was not the Supreme Court case memorable for the phrase regarding obscenity “I know it when I see it.” That case was Jacobellis v. Ohio (378 U.S. 184, 1964).
The case against Lady Chatterley’s Lover seemed cut and dry since it met the legal definition of obscenity at the time.
However, Rosset's lawyer, Charles Rembar, spotted a loophole in the Roth decision. That opinion, written by Justice William J. Brennan, claimed that the purpose of the First Amendment was “to assure unfettered interchange of ideas” and 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.” But, Brennan went on, “implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.”
Rembar posed a question that Brennan apparently hadn’t considered: What if a book met the standards of obscenity yet also presented ideas of “redeeming social importance”? He argued that only material both prurient and “worthless” should be denied the privilege of free speech.
Presenting testimony from several literary critics, Rembar argued that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a novel of ideas that actually advocated sexual fulfillment in marriage, rather than sex without love, as well as inveighing against hypocrisy and the mechanization of industrial life.
The United States attorney representing the Post Office, S. Hazard Gillespie Jr., pointed out that Justice Brennan wrote that controversial ideas “have the full protection” of the First Amendment — “unless,” Gillespie emphasized, these ideas were “excludable because they encroach upon the limited area of more important interests.” One of those interests was keeping obscenity under wraps. Therefore Rembar’s argument was irrelevant.
Rembar rebutted that in the footnote in which Justice Brennan elaborated on what kind of “more important interests” were “excludable,” all of them involved actions, such as peddling, but none involved writing.
Rembar further observed that “A novel, no matter how much devoted to the act of sex, can hardly add to the constant sexual prodding with which our environment assails us.” In short, “community standards” were radically changing.
The judge accepted Rembar’s interpretation, and issued his opinion in favor of the defense.
After the ban on Lady Chatterley was lifted, the book reached Number Two on The New York Times’s best-seller list and, within a year, sold two million copies. It is now considered a “classic.” (Lolita was also in the top ten.)
Mr. Rembar went on to defend Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, banned in dozens of states and cities, and, building on his successes, represented G.P. Putnam’s Sons as the publisher of Fanny Hill.