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Jonas Mekas Receives Apology from Ex-DA Regarding Obscenity Charges

As many will recall, artist and filmmaker Jonas Mekas faced obscenity charges in court after screening Jack Smith’s forty-three-minute film, Flaming Creatures (1963). The prosecutor was Gerald Harris.

Over five decades later, Harris last month emailed Mekas to apologize, according to John Leland in the New York Times. “I feel I owe you an apology,” Harris—who is partially retired—wrote via email. “Although my appreciation of free expression and aversion to censorship developed more fully as I matured, I should have sooner acted more courageously.”

Mekas wrote back, “Your surprise generous apology accepted!” He added, “There should be more such examples.” The artist and filmmaker told the New York Times, “I was a little bit surprised, but times change. I see it as sort of normal for someone who’s not intellectually dormant and follows what happens. I appreciate that and think it’s to his credit.”

Harris, at the time, was a twenty-eight-year-old assistant district attorney and a self-described “kid from the South Bronx.” He focused on misdemeanor obscenity prosecutions, to the point that booksellers allegedly locked their doors when he walked by. But over the course of his career, Harris became more and more supportive of free expression in the arts. He later refused to prosecute Lenny Bruce, “because he found Bruce’s routines hilarious,” in Leland’s words. And Harris became involved in poetry, even meeting Susan Sontag at a poetry reading. He recalled their conversation: “I said, I grew up to be the guy who refused to prosecute Lenny Bruce, and she said, ‘Good for you.’”

Mekas, meanwhile, saw the trial as something of a learning experience. “I realized it was a waste of time to oppose things head on. There are more subtle ways to go around the outside. So I changed tactics.”