FAN 42 (First Amendment News) Tribute to Al Bendich (1929-2015) — the ACLU lawyer who made the difference in the HOWL & Lenny Bruce cases
Some people make a difference in their lives; some people actually add to the bounty of freedom we call ours; and some people are so modest as to go quietly into the dark of their eternal night. Albert Bendich was one of those rare few. Sadly, Al died this past Monday.
Liberty in America is better off because of Al and what he did as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. He gave legal life to poetry and lawful voice to comedy . . . and more.
To know him was to like him — calm, mild mannered, soft spoken, and kind to a fault. But if you wanted to see sparks of passion — the ones that revealed the fire burning within him — all you had to do was start up a conversation about free speech. When it came to that, this lifetime defender of free expression became quite animated, but always with the composure of a learned lawyer who knew not only the law but also its history and the grand principles underlying it.
“I can’t think of anything more rewarding than fighting for matters of fundamental principles necessary to the preservation of democracy,” said Bendich in 2009. “The ACLU,” he added, “is absolutely necessary in that process. Without it we’d be going backward instead of trying to maintain our position and maybe inch a little bit forward.”
Al Bendich was a true inspiration to everyone in the ACLU community. . . From his time as staff counsel at the ACLU of Northern California, to his days as a teacher, and then a career in music and film with his colleague Saul Zaentz, Al’s passion for the Constitution and his country was a constant. — Abdi Soltani, Executive Director, ACLU of Northern California
The People vs Poetry
Turn the clock back to 1957. On June 3rd of that year San Francisco police arrested Shig Murao, the manager of City Lights Bookstore, for selling HOWL and Other Poems to an undercover officer. Thereafter, City Lights’s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing HOWL. (See here and here for accounts of the arrest and what followed). The case, People v. Ferlinghetti, went to trial.
The trio of defense counsel: the famed and flashy criminal defense lawyer Jake Ehrlich, the talented and knowledgeable public-interest lawyer Lawrence Speiser, and a recent Boalt Hall law graduate, Al Bendich (Speiser and Bendich were ACLU lawyers).
Here is how Nadine Strossen, the ACLU’s past President and a friend of Al’s, described what happened next: “When Al Bendich worked on the landmark HOWL case, he was a very new lawyer, and the Supreme Court’s Roth decision, defining the obscenity exception to the First Amendment, was a very new decision. The HOWL case was one of first impression — the first actual application of Roth to an obscenity prosecution. Accordingly, Al’s brief in the case played a key role in shaping the law on point.”
“All free speech advocates,” she added, “are eternally indebted to Al for brilliantly managing to construe the Roth obscenity exception as narrowly as feasible, and persuasively explaining why it didn’t encompass HOWL. The brief had a palpable impact on the judge’s historic, speech-protective opinion, which in turn has had an ongoing positive impact on law and literature alike.”
Here is a passage from that brief:
Would there be any freedom of the press or speech if one must reduce his vocabularly to vapid and innocous euphemisms? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words. — Al Bendich (brief in People v. Ferlinghetti, 1957)
When it was all over, poetry prevailed.
It was a new day in First Amendment America. HOWL could be sold in City Lights Bookstore and elsewhere. And all of this from a ruling by a San Francisco municipal court judge (Clayton W. Horn) who wrote a remarkable opinion that drew heavily on the work of a young ACLU lawyer named Al Bendich. Incredibly, it was the last time that a poem was the target of prosecution in an American court.
Even so, censors returned to the scene. Decades later, in 2005, Congress raised limits on the fines for indecency on the broadcast airwaves. That enabled the F.C.C. to charge up to $325,000 for every violation of its standards. And those standards barred reading HOWL on broadcast radio or television. “It seems like déjà vu all over again,” said Al.
Comedy on Trial
Imagine being busted for being a tad too colorful in telling jokes (many of them by way of social commentary) in a comedy club . . . in San Francisco . . . in the 1960s. Well, it happened to Lenny Bruce — no joke! The infamous comedian was hauled away from using indecent words during his performance at a club in North Beach in 1961 (see The Trials of Lenny Bruce).
The prosecutor was Hell bent on putting the “filthy” comedian behind bars for words spoken to adults at a joint called The Jazz Workshop where the likes of Thelonious Monk and others performed. No one was offended, no one complained, and no children were in the audience. Never mind. Bruce’s choice words violated sections 176 and 205 of the Municipal Police Code (unlawful presentation of an “obscene, indecent, immoral, or impure” performance) and section 311.6 of the California Penal Code (“lewd or obscene” words used in “any public place”). Now Lenny Bruce would have to face the music — and it wasn’t free-spirited jazz.
Bruce had been looking around for a powerhouse mouthpiece, preferably someone who was “hip” to First Amendment law. Predictably, Al Bendich’s name came up. They met, they spoke, and soon enough Al agreed to defend the comedian on First Amendment grounds. So they went to trial.
The Judge? None other than Clayton Horn, the same judge who followed Bendich’s counsel and ruled in favor of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Given the Horn-Bendich connection, things looked quite promising for Lenny. Ever the contrarian, Bruce demanded a jury trial. It was insanity. Still, Bendich preserved and thanks to several brilliant legal maneuvers was successful in securing a not guilty ruling.
Here is the kicker: the jury wanted to convict Bruce but ruled otherwise solely because of the precise jury instructions given to them by Judge Horn. Said one juror afterwards: “We hate this verdict, but under the instructions there was nothing we could do but give the ‘not guilty’ verdict.”
And who drafted those instructions? Yes, it was that same ACLU lawyer. Bendich had done it again; he had beaten back the forces of censorship. Now norm-breaking poetry and speak-your-mind comedy were safe in San Francisco.
* * * *
There is, to be sure, more to Al Bendich’s life story than those two landmark First Amendment cases. There is, for example, his many years as counsel for Fantasy Records. And there is also his work on behalf of the constitutional rights of gays (see here, circa 1960), the poor, and the criminally accused.
My last conversation with Al Bendich was about the death penalty. His opposition was deep and passionate. His abiding sense of justice stemmed from multiple sources – his brilliant intellect; his commitment to the constitution and finally, his life experience.
He also spoke with his characteristic humility, but great pride, about his role in litigating one of the most influential cases establishing the unconstitutional conditions doctrine for recipients of public benefits, Parrish v. Civil Service Commission. In Parrish the California Supreme Court ruled in the 1960’s that predawn “bed raids” of recipients was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, and that the government could not condition continued receipt of public assistance on the forfeiture of constitutional rights. — Dorothy M. Ehrlich, Deputy Executive Director, national ACLU
Remember the First Amendment lawyers
We think of First Amendment law as synonymous with judge-made law. We know the names of the judges — Holmes and Brandeis, Black and Brennan, etc. — who penned the famous opinions. But what of the lawyers who, like Al Bendich, argued those cases and advanced novel and persuasive arguments? Regrettably, too often they receive too little credit for the work they do. We must do more to remember them, to learn from them, and to share their life stories with new generations of lawyers eager to defend civil rights and civil liberties.
Now he stands tall in the memorial ranks of other First Amendment lawyers — the likes of everyone from Walter H. Pollak to Ephraim London to Stanley Fleishman to Bruce J. Ennis and beyond. They were, after all, the ones who helped to shape the law in ways to make the impossible possible. In the process they gave new and vibrant meaning to the First Amendment.
“Al Bendich contributed so much to the strong protection of free expression in the United States,” said Robert Corn-Revere, a noted First Amendment lawyer. “He had the vision and courage to defend speech that many people found to be unacceptable. I hope this sad occasion will at least move us to remember — and to celebrate — his accomplishments.”
On a personal note: Al was a dear friend. A year or so ago I was with him in Seattle with David Skover, whose law school hosted a conference at which Al spoke (see video here). And then there was the time when David and I spent a wondrous evening in San Francisco with Al and his wife Pam — chatting away for hours on everything from Alex Meiklejohn to Citizens United to Humanitarian Law Project. Despite a few differences of views, Al picked up the tab (fancy wine and all). The sparkle in his eye, his gentle grin, his soft tone, and the way he spoke with such an admirable commitment to freedom — I remember it all as I write this.
In my mind’s eye I venture to City Lights Bookstore and see Al and Lawrence Ferlinghetti there — the lawyer and the poet — talking about the need for more insurgent poetry. And I imagine the tall poet leaning over to Al and saying: “Poetry is a radical presence constantly goading us.” Al smiles. “Ah yes, and remember,” he adds, “one of the reasons we have a First Amendment is to safeguard that radical presence.”
One final thought: If you believe in the work that Al Bendich did, if you believe in freedom for radical poets and ribald comics, and if you care about free speech in America, you can do something — exercise your First Amendment rights / help to protect the rights of others (even if you disagree with them) / and support the American Civil Liberties Union (go here to donate) or whatever group (liberal, conservative, or libertarian) that supports the principle of free speech for all.
→ Postscript: See also Michael Tigar, “Al Bendich, Mentor, Lawyer, Friend” (1-8-15)