Lenny Bruce Trial: 1964
Adjournment For Illness, Adjourned For Vacation
Defendants: Lenny Bruce, Ella Solomon, and Howard L. Solomon
Crime Charged: Obscenity
Chief Defense Lawyers: Martin Garbus and Efraim London
Chief Prosecutor: Richard H. Kuh
Judges: J. Randall Creel, John M. Murtagh, and Kenneth M. Phipps
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: June 16-December 21, 1964
Verdict: Lenny Bruce: Guilty; Howard L. Solomon: Guilty; Ella Solomon: not Guilty
Sentence: Lenny Bruce: 4 months imprisonment; Howard L. Solomon: $1,000 fine or 60 Days Jail
SIGNIFICANCE: Freedom of speech is a cherished right. But just how far should that right extend? For many, comedian Lenny Bruce stepped way beyond any reasonable interpretation of free speech. That belief resulted in the costliest, and certainly the most controversial obscenity trial in American history.
On April Fool's Day, 1964, two plainclothes New York City police officers mingled with the audience at the Cafe Au Go Go, a Greenwich Village coffeehouse, and watched comedian Lenny Bruce at work. It was a typical Bruce performance, funny, scatological, bitingly accurate, laced with Anglo-Saxonisms, and all recorded for posterity on a concealed wiretap worn by one of the officers. Two nights later, April 3, just before he was due on stage, Bruce was arrested and charged with using obscene language. Also arrested was club owner Howard Solomon.
Bruce was no stranger to controversy. He had several times been cited for obscenity and twice convicted, but this was easily his highest profile arrest yet. He continued his engagement at the Cafe Au Go Go after posting bail. Four nights later, he and Solomon were arrested again. This time police also took Solomon's wife Ella into custody and charged all three with obscenity.
Just days before their trial commenced, a statement signed by more than one hundred prominent members of the arts community was issued to the media. In it, the signatories pledged support for the beleaguered Bruce, but more especially for the principle of free speech.
Herbert S. Rune, an inspector with the NYC Department of Licenses, was the final witness called to testify. He had watched Bruce perform, jotting down surreptitious notes. Over defense objections, he read out an edited version of Bruce's act that highlighted the language used and virtually ignored the context. Worst of all was Rune's assertion, bitterly denied by the defense, that Bruce had fondled the microphone in an obvious and suggestive manner.
This allegation was reiterated by the next witness, Patrolman Robert Lane, who with his partner, William O'Neal, had recorded Bruce. That tape, scratchy, hissing and difficult to make out, was played in court. Wherever the original words were inaudible, a prosecution transcript provided damaging substitutions.
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