Mr. de Grazia, who practiced law and taught at several Washington law schools, was one of the country’s foremost advocates of the First Amendment, championing the causes of writers, publishers, filmmakers and others who challenged legal and moral conventions.
He did his most notable work in the 1960s, when he defended the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce and won major legal victories that permitted the distribution of “Tropic of Cancer,” “Naked Lunch” and the Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow).” Mr. de Grazia was also a playwright and the author of a comprehensive history of literary censorship, “Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius” (1992).
He was, in the words of a onetime colleague, legal scholar Monroe Price, “the exemplar of a public interest scholar-lawyer: not only a teacher, but one who fought in the courts for principles in which he believed.”
Mr. de Grazia began working on censorship cases in the early 1950s, soon after he began his career in the Washington office of Kirkland, Green, Martin and Ellis. In 1955, he defended a bookseller who was seeking to import a copy of the play “Lysistrata,” written more than 2,000 years earlier by Aristophanes, one of the classic playwrights of ancient Greece.
The U.S. Postal Service seized an illustrated copy of the play, deeming it obscene. Mr. de Grazia ultimately won an injunction against the Postal Service.
In the early 1960s, he began to handle cases for Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press published books by Miller and Burroughs and other writers who dealt with overtly sexual matters. Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” an autobiographical novel about a struggling writer in Paris, had been banned in many states for being lewd.
Mr. de Grazia structured his argument around a 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roth v. United States, in which Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote that material could be banned if it was “utterly without redeeming social importance” or appealed primarily “to the prurient interest.”
By demonstrating that “prurient interest” did not negate “social importance,” Mr. de Grazia won a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 1964, overturning a lower-court ruling that outlawed the sale of “Tropic of Cancer.”
Mr. de Grazia returned to the literary battlefield in 1965 with a new tactic to defend Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch,” a 1959 novel about the reflections of a heroin addict. After the book had been banned in Boston, Mr. de Grazia called on writers Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg to judge its merits.
The writers’ courtroom testimony — often eloquent and sometimes baffling — tied the prosecution in knots of bewilderment, as it became apparent that “Naked Lunch” contained artistic and political themes that went far beyond its occasional depictions of sexual acts.