Free Speech Pioneer, Publisher Barney Rosset Dies at 89

February 24, 2012

We live in a country were, as Americans, we have unprecedented freedoms and rights. The First Amendment, which provides us with freedom of speech and expression, is first for a reason. Because great minds knew that without open exchange of ideas; the entitlement to civil debate; and the right to express in art and literature topics that some might find controversial – without these freedoms, there would be little opportunity for progress and freedom.

Barney Rosset was one of those great minds. Rosset, the one-time owner of Grove Press and editor-in-chief of the Evergreen Review, was responsible for the landmark Supreme Court ruling, in 1964, that allowed him to publish Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which up until that time had been consider “obscene.”

With the monumental amount of information we have access to in this Digital Age, it’s hard to imagine a time when words on a page could be consider so offensive, so subversive, so dangerous that they should be banned. But Rosset took a hard stand for authors like Miller, DH Lawrence, the Beat poets – all of them now required reading in colleges and universities.

Rosset was the American publisher for the erotic BDSM classic The Story of O. He went back to court in 1968, when U.S. Customs seized copies of the early Swedish erotic film “I am Curious (Yellow)” that Rosset meant to distribute. And he won.

Rossett fought, not only for the freedom of expression of controversial artists – he fought for people like you and I to be able to have access to strange ideas and concepts so that we might see different perspectives and take away from them valuable understanding – or whatever the audience chose to take away from an experience others might deem inappropriate. A true free speech advocate, he believed in freedom of expression, in the extreme. He trusted in the intelligence of the people who would read those books and see those movies, and upheld the right for those people to make up their own minds.

That’s what being an American is all about.

Sadly, especially in difficult economic and political times, there is a tendency toward the conservative, to seek safety and sacrifice some of our freedoms. We forget how hard certain individuals have fought so that we could have those rights. Rosset dedicated his life to that battle and we have all benefited from his pioneering spirit. If you have ever enjoyed a passage from Lady Chattterly’s Lover or Naked Lunch or Waiting for Godot, you owe Barney Rosset a debt of gratitude.

Rosset died following recent heart surgery. He was 89.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Special thanks to FSC Board President Sid Grief


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