on march 25, 1957, customs officials seized 520 copies of allen ginsberg's poem "howl" that had been imported from the london printer. in the subsequent obscenity trial brought against lawrence ferlinghetti, the owner of city lights bookstore and the book's publisher, judge clayton horn ruled that the poem had "redeeming social importance" and was therefor not obscene.
not only did the government's embarrassingly heavy-handed effort at censorship fail, but it garnered the poem and allen ginsberg incalculable publicity which, in turn, fueled sales and interest in the work and author. "howl," the obscenity trial, the release of jack kerouac's "on the road," publication of william s. burroughs's "naked lunch," and it's own obscenity trials, were milestone events of the "beat generation."
the effort to censor and suppress "howl" was part of a much larger censorship effort that raged during that period and extending into the 60's. outside of the beat authors, censors targeted henry miller's "tropic of cancer" - which was subject to multiple trials, in multiple states and even resulted in an arrest warrant issued in BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, for none other than henry miller himself!
these works weren't obscene - but the efforts to censor and suppress them were!
a book on the "howl" trial, "howl of the censor" was written in the wake of the decision by the lead counsel for the defense, jake erlich. a more recent retelling of the story is in bill morgan's book, "howl on trial: the battle for freedom of expression," published in connection with the 50th anniversary of the poem. now the trial is slated to be made into a film!
if you believe free speech battles are a thing of the ancient past, consider the irony of this sad bit of very "recent" news:
in 2007, on the 50th anniversary of judge horn's landmark decision, ferlinghetti (among others) petitioned pacifica radio to broadcast a live reading of howl to commemorate the anniversary of the events. pacifica radio's wbai declined because it feared (rightly so?) the large fines and sanctions that could have been imposed by the fcc - as a consequence of that exercise of FREE SPEECH!