The obits also pointed out — quite correctly — that Flynt’s reputation with the general public is tinted by the 1996 biopic “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” an award-winning, big Hollywood production that crystallized the image of the Hustler publisher as a colorful, profane anti-censorship warrior.
Though the film was very much an “authorized biography” — it derived much of its narrative from Flynt’s mid-1990s memoir “An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast” and its subject readily participated in its promotion — the Milos Forman-directed movie did simplify the multitude of Flynt’s legal battles against the forces of sexual repression and hypocrisy.
If the answer to the question “why was Larry Flynt so crucial in the fight for free expression?” is less tidy than what a Hollywood screenplay demands, it’s no less crucial to understand the unique impact of this headstrong Kentucky-by-way-of-Ohio troublemaker on American jurisprudence and cultural life.
The Real Deal
“He was the real deal. I’ve represented a lot of people who used the First Amendment to try to gain some sort of economic advantage. Flynt wasn’t that way at all and every case we filed on his behalf was because he was trying to move the needle,” Paul Cambria — his longtime attorney and free speech expert — told the Buffalo, N.Y. NPR affiliate as he reflected on his famous client’s passing.
When I interviewed Larry Flynt, then 77 years old, in his Beverly Hills office for the special January 2020 issue of XBIZ World — which turned out to be one of the last career-spanning interviews he would agree to do — he spoke about the core of his philosophy, which would end up putting him on a collision course against the professional moralists.
I asked him about what made Hustler — which he decided to start in 1974 as a third major adult magazine to compete against the already-established Playboy and Penthouse — unique.
“People were saying, ‘Well, how is Hustler gonna be different from Penthouse or Playboy?’” he explained, pointing out that, unlike him, the other publications were building sex into an aspirational lifestyle item to go along expensive stereos, martini recipes and Mercedes ads.
“I said, Hustler readers aren’t that way,” he continued, his original pitch readily flowing from his lips. “They like their sex straight and raw. No pretension. No wrapping our girls in sophisticated editorial content to give them ‘socially redeeming value.’”
And then he stated, “Sex in itself is socially redeeming.”
A Surprisingly Revolutionary Concept
That sex in itself does not need to make apologies for existing was in 1974 — and perhaps even more so, and surprisingly, still is in 2021 — a revolutionary concept for many.
The Ohio-based Hustler magazine took off within a year of its creation, becoming a booming business that prompted the Wall Street Journal to call it “not only the fastest-growing men’s magazine around, but one of the fastest-growing ever.”
As always, it was Hustler and Flynt’s financial success and growing mainstream acceptance that predictably attracted the attention of the religiously inspired moralists of the time. Flynt was unapologetic as a pornographer and adult club owner, and this rankled the guardians of morality.
Instead of hiding what he did or being discreet with his lifestyle, Flynt purchased a palatial home in the extremely conservative Columbus neighborhood of Bexley. He was taunting the establishment, and, in true Flynt style, he did not care.
Flynt’s first serious encounter with the War On Porn warriors occurred during the 1976 bicentennial, when Cincinnati prosecutors were prompted by a religious lobby called Citizens for Decency Through Law. The group was funded by a local Catholic businessman named Charles Keating.
Years later, in the early 1990s, Keating would be famously convicted on federal and state charges of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy for his role in the infamous Savings & Loan scandal, which provoked a financial crisis.
“Before he fucked the savings and loan industry,” Flynt wrote in his memoir a few years later, “Keating tried to prevent the portrayal of fucking in magazines.”
Becoming a First Amendment Warrior
Flynt fought Keating’s moralists hard from the get-go. He organized a grassroots group called Ohioans for a Free Press and held a rally. “We’re talking about the censorship of a magazine with three-million circulation, sold in 25 different countries with an estimated 15 million readers,” he harangued the crowd Kentucky-preacher style. “That’s 15 million voices that have a right to be heard. Now, either we have a free press or we don’t.”
“One of the greatest things that we have as American citizens, goddammit, is the right to be left alone,” Flynt sentenced, once again, establishing another unmovable principle on his lifelong Free Speech credo. “And me and my readers deserve that right.”
For the first of what would become many, many future media appearances, Flynt preached Free Speech and the glories of the First Amendment in an impromptu press conference in front of a throng of mainstream reporters wielding microphones and tape recorders.
Fighting corrupt, hypocritical Charles Keating in 1977 Cincinnati, the 34-year-old pornographer and businessman had encountered the second part of what would end up being his legacy: anti-censorship fighter.
Flynt lost many battles along the way, including that first one. He was a consumate gambler, but in this case the deck was stacked. Keating’s Citizens for Decency Through Law was operating in tandem with the prosecutor.
Summing up the case against Hustler, the prosecutor told the jury, “Sex is a beautiful thing — there’s no question about it — but only in the proper environment.”
Then, producing a piece of chalk out of his pocket, he drew a line across the courtroom floor and literally said “It’s time to draw the line against obscenity.”
Flynt was convicted by a stern judge named Morrisey. In the movie “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” he playfully agreed to play Morrisey, his first adverse judge, sentencing Woody Harrelson-as-Flynt to “11,000 in fines and 7-to-25, no bond!”
Ohio conservatives would continue to periodically pester Flynt and Hustler businesses for decades, always under moralistic excuses.
More Stacked Decks
The Ohio prosecution — and his unapologetic Free Speech antics — made Flynt a national figure. Talk shows and newspapers spoke of the case, even if the gatekeepers of morality ensured that Flynt could never be portrayed as a hero.
“I think Hustler is tawdry,” America’s most influential talk show host and nightly monologist Johnny Carson told the New Yorker in 1977, “but I also think the First Amendment means what it says, then it protects Flynt as much as anyone else.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” Carson continued, “people should be allowed to read and see whatever they like, provided it doesn’t injure others. If they want to read pornography until it comes out of their ears, the let them. But if I go on the ‘Tonight Show’ and defend Hustler, the viewers are going to tag me as that guy who’s into pornography. And that’s gonna hurt me as an entertainer, which is what I am.”
Another deck, this time of mainstream media and public opinion, was stacked against Flynt. Again, he didn’t care.
While he was fighting the Cincinnati conviction, Flynt very publicly and briefly converted — and the magazine — to evangelical Christianity. It was during this period that another obscenity case popped up in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Flynt had recently decided to challenge the Georgia morality police by opening a pop-up Hustler shop in Atlanta and selling the magazine himself.
It was during a subsequent 1978 Lawrenceville trial fighting local obscenity legislation that Flynt was shot by a white supremacist serial killer, who was reportedly indignant at Hustler’s depiction of an interracial couple.
Following the assassination attempt, the Lawrenceville judge declared a mistrial. Flynt, in unimaginable pain, returned to Georgia a year after the shooting to face off against his enemies.
In a 1984 interview he said that before the shooting he used to spend 20 percent of his time fucking with “them” (the Man, the establishment, the hypocrites, etc.) and 80 percent having sex.
“Now that I can’t fuck,” he continued, “I spend 100 percent of my time fucking with ‘them.’ See, I’m paralyzed from the waist down, but I ain’t paralyzed from the waist up.”
“That’s why I’m their worst nightmare come true,” he added.
Fighting Through Personal Chaos
After he moved his business operation to Los Angeles in 1979, comes a chaotic period that those who know the man’s story only through “The People vs. Larry Flynt” tend to find confusing. And that makes sense: between 1979 and 1983, the L.A.-based Flynt was going through the painful aftermath of the shooting, erratic medical treatments, mental health misdiagnoses and lifestyle-related turmoil.
Still, he managed to propel himself into the national conversation, in a series of legal appearances and stunts that culminated in his 1983 campaign for the Republican nomination for President, challenging one of his main targets of vitriol, Ronald Reagan.
Here’s where understanding his free speech legacy gets tricky for many people: the iconic images of Flynt in his trademark gold wheelchair wearing a diaper, or a T-shirt saying “Fuck This Court,” or American flags as apparel, or telling off the Supreme Court — all of which were recreated in the Hollywood biopic — don’t directly relate to Flynt’s work as a pornographer and as a publisher of sex images.
A lot of his legal troubles in the early 1980s — including the time he described the Supreme Court with an incredibly obscene quip — stem from a lawsuit over a lewd cartoon mocking Penthouse founder Bob Guccione and his then-girlfriend that Hustler published in 1976. Others escalated from Flynt’s involvement in a bizarre, convoluted incident surrounding the criminal drugs case against car manufacturer John DeLorean.
Both major Flynt-related cases cited in free speech jurisprudence do not involve his publishing of sex photos: they’re both about comedy material, as he understood it, aimed at personal foes.
Perhaps the most famous case stems from Flynt’s publication of a Mad Magazine-style parody of a Campari ad that implied Rev. Jerry Falwell — the nation’s most famous religious moralist and War on Porn crusader — had sex with his own mother.
The Falwell legal battle is what eventually enshrined Flynt as a First Amendment warrior and it also provided the rousing anti-censorship climax to “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”
It’s important to stress that Flynt was indeed being targeted by the forces of morality because he was an unrepentant pornographer. But his major battles were fought over the right to publish raunchy comedy bits he personally enjoyed — outhouse humor of the kind a pre-joining-the Navy teenage Flynt would have enjoyed with a rolled cigarette and a swig of moonshine.
The Right to Fight ‘a Religious Phony’
Falwell’s lawsuit came at a time when Flynt had been jailed over one of the many contempt of court incidents he had become embroiled in. His state of mind was dark, but he knew what he had to do: keep fighting.
“As far as I was concerned,” he later wrote about the period, “there was no justice, no God, no rationality left in the world. The government had done nothing to find or arrest to man who had shot me, the medical profession had done nothing to alleviate my pain and the legal profession was persecuting me for expressing my passionately held opinion that Jerry Falwell was a religious phony.”
During the Falwell trial, Flynt continued stating his beliefs. “Free expression is absolute,” he told the opposing counsel, “as long as no one is hurt.”
“I feel you have a right to say whatever you want to,” he continued.
“No matter how somebody’s feelings may be affected?” asked Falwell’s lawyer.
“Ah, you’re talking about matters of taste. What I’m trying to say is that no one should be imprisoned for what they say! If you don’t like what is being said on television, turn it off. If you don’t like what’s in Hustler, don’t buy it.”
The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where Flynt’s attorney Alan Isaacson (played in the movie by Edward Norton) delivered a lasting argument in favor of free expression in 1987.
“There is public interest in having Hustler express its view that what Jerry Falwell says, as the ad parody indicates — is B.S.”
“And,” he added, “Hustler has every right to say that somebody who’s out there campaigning against it, saying, ‘Don’t read [their] magazine and [they] are poison on the minds of America and don’t fornicate and don’t drink liquor’ — Hustler has every right to say that man is full of B.S.”
“And that is what this ad parody says,” Isaacman concluded. “It put him in a ridiculous setting. Instead of Jerry Falwell speaking from the television with a beatific look on his face and a Bible in his hand, Hustler is saying, ‘Let’s deflate this stuffed shirt; let’s bring him down to our level.'”
The Supreme Court published its decision in 1988 and they ruled unanimously in favor of Flynt and Hustler, with the Chief Justice writing, “The fact that society might find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it.”
‘Fuck You If You Can’t Take a Joke’
In his Hustler editorial celebrating the decision, Flynt wrote another summation of his Free Speech and free sexual expression philosophy:
I sincerely hope that this victory over censorship signals the swing of the pendulum back toward a more open society, where sexual communication can be conducted freely and with an accompanying honesty.
“hose traits have been sorely lacking in our initial approaches to the AIDS crisis and sex education, and their absence hinders people’s ability to make informed decisions about disease prevention, contraception and abortion.
Hustler has always promoted the concept that sexual openness requires sexual responsibility, just as maintaining our civil freedoms requires the responsible effort to vote, pay taxes and obey the laws and legal precedents of the land.
I am very happy to have helped ensure that one of those precedents guarantees every American the right to make fun, particularly of those people who try to hold themselves above the rest of the world.
The title of the editorial is “Fuck You If You Can’t Take a Joke.”
‘I Think We Gotta Be Free’
Nearing the end of his life and many tribulations, Flynt retained the boyish hellraiser glint in his eye that one can see in countless pictures from throughout his more than five decades in the limelight.
Back in December 2019, I asked Flynt if he considered himself idealistic about the prospects of holding power to scrutiny and fighting the good fight against the self-appointed moralists and hypocrites.
“This country is pretty corrupt…” he told me, before trailing off into one of his elder statesmanlike reflective moods, followed by a few seconds of silence.
“This country is pretty corrupt,” he then repeated, now with more intent. And then he fixed his probing eyes on me, chuckling, “I guess at heart, I’m an anarchist.”
Later, when I asked him about what in his opinion drove the War on Porn moralists that continue fighting against sexual expression — his old enemies from Morality in Media have rebranded as NCOSE (National Center on Sexual Exploitation) and are funding most major attempts to restrict access to porn — Flynt offered a wise summation that reflected a lifetime of fighting the good fight.
“I think we gotta be free,” he said. “We can’t be afraid to be free. Freedom is defending the thought that we hate rather than the thought that we love the most, you know.”
“A lot of people are afraid to be free.”
Main Image: Larry Flynt photographed in his office, December 2019 (Photo: Gustavo Turner)