Ferlinghetti: A Free Speech Hero of the Beat Generation

This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.

There may be no two personalities more distant and yet more prominent in their own ways in the 20th century world of free speech than conservative talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh and the owner of San Francisco’s famed City Lights bookstore, poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The universe does move in mysterious, and yet connected, ways.

Ferlinghetti, 101, died Feb. 22. Limbaugh, 70, died last week. Each pushed the boundaries of the nation’s social standards in a persistent drive to illuminate, criticize and correct society’s faults and missteps — and they employed and enjoyed the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and free press in those efforts.

Limbaugh’s verbal viscerality offended many, from Democrats to the LGBTQ community to women’s rights advocates. Meanwhile, his audiences swelled to nearly 20 million listeners. His bombastic but effective style is credited with spawning a generation of opinionated radio and cable TV personalities, even as he continued to set the genre’s pace for nearly three decades.

Ferlinghetti’s unabashed support of many of the major progressive poets of the 1950s — and his public defense of gay people in an era when many felt forced to hide their sexual identity — offended many at the time. But his bookstore and his work provided a national platform for the emerging “Beat” poets and counterculture authors such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, setting a tone of progressive dissent and blunt social commentary that echoes in social critics today.

In 1956, Ferlinghetti published poet Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, the title poem in the flowing screed-and-scream criticism of American life that is “Howl and Other Poems.” Ferlinghetti and his business partner and store clerk Shigeyoshi Murao were arrested in 1957 for selling a copy of the book to two undercover San Francisco police officers for 75 cents at the famed City Lights bookstore.

“Howl” begins with this staggeringly stark line, in a poem denouncing American society: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”

Ferlinghetti went on trial for “willfully and lewdly” printing and distributing “indecent writings” because of the poem’s provocative references to gay sexuality and drug use. In what is seen as a landmark First Amendment event, Ferlinghetti was acquitted.

San Francisco Judge Clayton W. Horn found that the poem had “redeeming social value,” providing it free speech protection. Horn wrote, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? … An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.”

Historians note that following the “Howl” ruling, emboldened publishers brought forward previously censored books such as Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

While the “Howl” case and Ferlinghetti are significant in First Amendment history, free speech experts Ronald K. L. Collins, a former Freedom Forum First Amendment scholar, and his co-author David Skover observed in a 2019 book that the municipal court decision “does not appear in any … free speech casebook (and) the Supreme Court has never cited his name as a precedent for press freedom.”

Yet, in “The People v. Ferlinghetti,” Collins and Skover wrote, “like Benjamin Franklin-Bache, the rebel colonial printer and publisher, Ferlinghetti buttressed the tradition of dissident expression. He did so at a pinpoint in the modern era when many minds were closed, when candid literature was still taboo in many circles, when selling banned books was still a crime, and when even the publication of a book could bring a criminal indictment.”

In their personal approaches to the public, Ferlinghetti and Limbaugh could not have been more different: Limbaugh proclaimed himself “the most dangerous man in America.” Ferlinghetti through the years repeatedly told interviewers he was “just the guy minding the store.”

Yet each shared a deep antipathy to government control over individual views or creativity and an idealist’s passion for the core freedoms of the First Amendment — as both a path and the tool for driving change to correct the wrongs and shortcomings in the American experiment in democracy.

Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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