NEW YORK — Edward de Grazia, a lawyer and teacher who in the 1950s and ’60s broadened the scope of what Americans would be allowed to read by helping to defeat government bans on sexually explicit books, died April 11 in Potomac, Md. He was 86.
A fierce civil libertarian who taught for 30 years at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, Mr. de Grazia defined his life’s work as defending ‘‘morally defiant artists’’ against ‘‘reactionary politicians and judges.’’
In 1955, the Postal Service used an 1873 law to seize a rare volume of ‘‘Lysistrata,’’ a play written 2,400 years before by Aristophanes in which Greek women withhold sex to force Spartan and Athenian warriors to abandon war. Arthur E. Summerfield, the postmaster general, condemned the play as ‘‘obscene, lewd, and lascivious’’ and moved to destroy the book.
Mr. De Grazia responded that what was obscene to Summerfield was ‘‘pure as mountain snow to another,’’ and he ridiculed the Postal Service for having banned books such as Voltaire’s ‘‘Candide’’ and Mark Twain’s ‘‘Tom Sawyer.’’ The Postal Service gave up, releasing the ‘‘Lysistrata’’ volume before the case could go to trial.
In 1964, Mr. de Grazia won a decision by the US Supreme Court that overturned rulings in lower courts that a 1961 edition of Henry Miller’s sexually explicit novel, ‘‘Tropic of Cancer,’’ published by Grove Press in New York, was obscene. The novel had been published in Paris in 1934 and banned by many states and cities in the United States.
Representing Grove and its provocative publisher, Barney Rosset, Mr. de Grazia shepherded the appeal to the Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the court held that publication of the book should be allowed even if some found it obscene. The decision reversed a 1957 ruling that obscenity was not protected speech.
Writing for the majority, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said that all material ‘‘not utterly without’’ literary, artistic, scientific, or other social value deserved constitutional protection.
In 1991, when Mr. de Grazia published his comprehensive and influential book ‘‘Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius,’’ he dedicated it to Brennan. (The book’s title derives from the words of a publisher who was convicted of obscenity in 1921 for printing a section of James Joyce’s ‘‘Ulysses’’ in her magazine.)
Many interpreted ‘‘the Brennan doctrine’’ as permitting hard-core pornography, and later courts took a tougher stance.
In 1965, Mr. de Grazia went to Boston to appeal a court ban of William S. Burroughs’ sexually explicit novel ‘‘The Naked Lunch.’’ He summoned literary lions including Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg to testify about the book’s artistic worth and won his argument, that genius should never be curbed because of differences over taste or morality.
The book, published in 1959, was the last work of fiction to be censored by the Postal Service, the Customs Service, and state governments.
Edward Richard de Grazia was born in Chicago. The son of a bandleader, he served in the US Air Force in Europe from 1946 to 1948 and then earned bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Chicago, where he edited the law review.
He also taught at the Catholic University of America, the University of Connecticut, Georgetown, American University, and Yale.