Free Speech

Larry Flynt Made the World Freer for Everybody by Pushing Boundaries

Abrasive, tasteless, and uncompromising, Flynt undoubtedly made the world safer for speech of all varieties.

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America lost a free speech champion last week with the death of Larry Flynt at the age of 78. The publisher of Hustler magazine was one of those rare people who actually took a bullet for his principles. In an age when too many people believe speech is worthy of protection only if they approve of its content, he was a reminder that the greatest champions of liberty are often confrontational outliers who are willing to offend and to push back boundaries.

Flynt may be best known for the case of Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell (1988). That case turned on a 1983 ad parody which lampooned Campari advertisements featuring celebrities' "first time" with the drink by portraying prominent socially conservative preacher Jerry Falwell's "first time" with his mother in an outhouse. While the piece was clearly labeled as a parody, Falwell filed suit for invasion of privacy, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

The courts initially rejected the first two claims but ruled in Falwell's favor on the emotional distress claim and awarded him damages. Because of uncertainty over First Amendment protection for speech that allegedly causes emotional distress, the case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the court found that public figures such as Jerry Falwell must meet an extremely high standard before they can collect damages from people who mock them.

For a unanimous court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote:

"We conclude that public figures and public officials may not recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of publications such as the one here at issue without showing, in addition, that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with "actual malice," i.e., with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true."

"The Court effectively shut off an effort to make it easier for public figures to muzzle criticism and satire," Stuart Taylor, Jr. summarized for The New York Times after the case was decided.

A decade after the case, Flynt and Falwell became, improbably, friends and colleagues, touring the country to publicly discuss issues on which they disagreed.

"We went to colleges, debating moral issues and 1st Amendment issues – what's 'proper,' what's not and why," Flynt told the Los Angeles Times after Falwell's death in 2007. 

Not that either budged or even moderated the other's views. But disagreement isn't necessarily about persuasion; it's also about acknowledging that other people have strongly held views by which they have every right to live, so long as they don't force them on you.

By no means was this Flynt's first high-profile free speech fight. In 1976, Flynt was sentenced by an Ohio court to serve seven to 25 years in prison on obscenity and organized crime charges. He served six days before the sentence was overturned.

In 1978, during an obscenity trial in Gwinnett County, Georgia, Flynt and his attorney, Gene Reeves, were shot by a sniper who was, reportedly, infuriated by depictions of interracial sex in Hustler. The shooting left Flynt permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The obscenity charges were dismissed after the incident.

Flynt and Hustler battled not just social conservatives, but activists on the left. Even as the Falwell case worked its way through the judicial system, Andrea Dworkin, who opposed pornography from a feminist perspective, sued Hustler for libel and defamation after she was parodied in the magazine. She, too, was turned away by the courts.

In later years, Flynt turned his sights on capital punishment. He challenged the secretive protocols and drug cocktails states use in administering the death penalty on the grounds that they violate 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. He even opposed the execution of Joseph Paul Franklin, the man who confessed to shooting him in 1978.

"Supporters of capital punishment argue that it is a deterrent which prevents potential murderers from committing future crimes, but research has failed to provide a shred of valid scientific proof to that effect whatsoever," Flynt wrote in a 2013 Hollywood Reporter piece. "As far as the severity of punishment is concerned, to me, a life spent in a 3-by-6-foot cell is far harsher than the quick release of a lethal injection."

In December 2003, Reason named Larry Flynt as one of 35 "heroes of freedom" for his hard-fought free speech efforts:

"Where Hugh Hefner mainstreamed bohemian sexual mores, hard-core porn merchant Flynt brought tastelessness to new depths, inspiring an unthinkable but revealing coalition between social conservatives and puritanical feminists—and helping to strengthen First Amendment protections for free expression along the way."

Plenty of people would dispute that characterization, including Flynt himself. In 1996, he objected, "I wouldn't have given my legs for anything or anyone. So I think that disqualifies me for hero status."

Others might raise objections on the grounds of Flynt's frequent violations of standards of good taste, or the misogyny of some of the material published in Hustler, in addition to the usual objections to portrayals of nudity and sex. He was, without any doubt, a boundary-pusher, and he wasn't always discriminating about the boundaries he crossed.

But by being abrasive, tasteless, and uncompromising, Flynt undoubtedly made the world safer for speakers of all varieties. That includes expanded protections for modern skeptics who, more perversely than any issue of Hustler, speak out against wide-ranging free-speech protections.

"My position is that you pay a price to live in a free society, and that price is toleration of some things you don't like. You have to tolerate the Larry Flynts of this world," he told an interviewer in 1996.

In doing his best to offend just about everybody, Larry Flynt undoubtedly strengthened protections for the freedom of the people he upset. To judge by the state of the world, we would benefit from more just like him.

NEXT: FBI Arrests Activist Daniel Baker Over Posts About Police Abuse and Self Defense

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  1. My position is that you pay a price to live in a free society, and that price is toleration of some things you don’t like.
    That’s not how it works now.

    1. Well then how, according to “Don’t look at me!”, DOES it work? Don’t leave us hanging!

      Or does it work by hanging everyone who offends you, in any way? Pray tell?

      1. (use 230)

    2. That’s because you don’t live in a free society any more.

    3. It doesn’t work like that now, and has never worked like that. Because we’ve never had a free society. We’ve approached the orbit of it now and then, but never come close to actually achieving it.

      We still need to strive for it, however.

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    5. We can judge a society by how rights are applied. If they don’t protect the worst of us, then they don’t protect any of us.

  2. Did not know he was opposed to government executions as well.

  3. A decade after the case, Flynt and Falwell became, improbably, friends and colleagues, touring the country to publicly discuss issues on which they disagreed.

    Not that that sort of semi-reconciliation and pseudo makeup sex is the purpose of the conflict in the first place. But it is good to see that it sometimes happens. That – occasionally – people learn from life.

  4. Weird how sometimes you need an asshole to stand up and make the point.

    1. Sometimes, eight assholes and a token cunt.

      1. I suppose you speak of the SCROTUS?

        1. He meant all your sockpuppets.

    2. Listen Chuck there are 3 types of people in this word you got dicks, pussys, and assholes. Dicks what to fuck all the time an pussy wat to complain, but then you got your assholes and all the asshole wants to do is shit all over everything. So yeah pussys don’t like dicks because pussys get fucked by dicks, but dicks also fuck assholes and if dicks didn’t fuck assholes you get you dicks and your pussys all covered in shit

      1. Careful, with all of that shit reference the Squirrel might come up with a new song or poem.

  5. “Supporters of capital punishment argue that it is a deterrent which prevents potential murderers from committing future crimes, but research has failed to provide a shred of valid scientific proof to that effect whatsoever,”

    “Science proves murderers reoffend after execution.”

    1. To be fair they are only marginally more likely to reoffend while spending the rest of their life in prison. And I’d wager the number of innocent people on death row is greater than the number of lifers who escape and kill someone before they are recaptured

      1. Felons losing access to owning firearms, hampered voting rights, getting snubbed after background checks for gainful employment, custody difficulties, …

        Makes crime that much easier, eh? What are you risking when you get back 60% or so of your former life?

        Gee, thanks, I guess.

        1. Well, dammit, those dastardly psychotic deranged law-breakers should have known better than to blow on a cheap plastic flute without permission! They have only themselves to blame!

          To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

        2. Actually there is a long list of companies open to hiring convicted felons including Apple, IBM, IKEA, US Steel, Kroger, lots of others.

          Not owning a firearm is no big deal. Lots of people don’t have them and live perfectly normal happy lives.

          I think felons should be able to vote but then again many people don’t and have perfectly normal lives.

          The people on death row aren’t going anywhere unless they get their conviction overturned.

          https://www.dioceseofjoliet.org/siteimages/peace/documents/Jail_and_Prison_Ministry/List_of_Felon_Friendly_Employers.pdf

          1. Additionally, innocent people on death row vs. lifers who escape and kill is no contest, but analogously, the number of innocent people on death row vs. (e.g.) murderers who go on to commit rape, assault, theft, etc. is similarly lopsided in the opposite direction and I’d say the moral line is fuzzy at best. Better that 100 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man be put to death, sure. But if it’s 1000 guilty men and they victimize 5000 innocent people? I don’t see the clear moral high ground.

            Not to mention the obvious catch-22. If prison were 100% effective at reforming individuals, there would be no evidence of recidivism but the lack of recidivism is evidence of its ineffectiveness (and, again, setting aside the moral rectitude of ‘reforming’ innocent men).

            ‘Thou shalt not kill anyone, ever’ strikes me as exceptionally shallow and dogmatic from people who claim to be above or even opposed to such shallow dogma and usually only oppose it selectively. To act like Larry Flynt is some honorable thought-leader on the matter, despite his own general protestations, is just such an example.

            1. I have two objections to the death penalty.

              The first is never give the state the power of execution.

              Our legal system is too flawed and it gives too much power to the government.

              The second you mentioned already.

              The real problem with all imprisonment is separating out the psychopaths and career criminals. That is difficult and will result in some who are released going back to crime.

              I have no problem with life in prison without parole for the most dangerous and the ones we would have executed. We have prisons where escape is near impossible.

              The vast majority of countries and many states here do not have the death penalty and are no worse off.

              1. My only problems with the death penalty are>

                We need to do it consistently; and
                We need to make it much faster.

  6. Try pushing the boundary about the 2020 election being rigged.

    1. I don’t know about that, many of the complaints and lawsuits appeared to be parodies.

      1. The whole bizarre post election episode looks like a parody. I expect a new Candid Camera TV show where they have clips of the whole Trump drama then he comes out in a blue suit smiling and joking about the whole thing.

      2. I too like to completely miss the point then support the point with my response.

    2. False. The Associated Press has decreed that that never happened.

  7. “But disagreement isn’t necessarily about persuasion; it’s also about acknowledging that other people have strongly held views by which they have every right to live, so long as they don’t force them on you.”

    These days only the first part is true.

  8. portraying prominent socially conservative preacher Jerry Falwell’s “first time” with his mother in an outhouse…Falwell filed suit for invasion of privacy

    Awkward…

  9. And really, Reason? Nothing about Parler being back online?

    1. Pornhub removed 80% of its content based on an article from the New York Times and a little bit of saber rattling by some payment processors. Dworkin and Religious conservatives of the time were doing it wrong. What they needed was a couple of billionaire silicon valley power point jockeys and the New York Times.

      1. This weekend Tony was squealing about the Moral Majority and religious conservatives like they’ve meant anything in the last twenty years.

        1. Meh, Vanneman comes in here and reminisces about voting against Reagan. It’s like that old dude talking how great that Lynard Skynard concert was.

          1. That’s Leonard Skinyrd!

        2. You can always count on progressives to never acknowledge progress. Perpetual victimhood is addictive.

          1. They also never acknowledge their perennial fuckups that affect millions of people

    2. Oh, and by the way, remember when someone told us right here on these pages that getting Parler back online would be a trivial matter? How long has it been?

      Build your own Internet.

      1. It only took them 1 and a half months to build their own internet. That is pretty impressive.

  10. Flynt and Hustler battled not just social conservatives, but activists on the left. Even as the Falwell case worked its way through the judicial system, Andrea Dworkin, who opposed pornography from a feminist perspective

    In my analysis of the culture war between the above two perspectives, Andrea Dworkin won.

    1. Venn Diagram-arama: What is the overlap between Social Conservatives and Feminists on the axis of obesity?

      1. Depends on both the social conservative and the feminist.

        One thing the last five to six years has taught me, is that the moniker “feminist” has taken on myriad meanings because the overton window has shifted so far to the left.

        For the Dworkin brand feminist, the overlap would be significant. for the feminists that I follow who are getting kicked off social media by the dozens, not so much.

      2. I know! Butt fat chance that I’ll tell ya!

      3. Hah, your comment just sank in. I read it as the venn diagram (full stop).

        Well played, sir.

        That’s actually a really good question. These days, I’m going to say not much. Because something has happened with the young green/pink hair feminist set that’s pushed the median weight way… WAY up.

    2. Apropos perhaps nothing, I’ve seen the ex of Flynt’s right hand man wearing a “A Woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” t-shirt.

  11. Was Trump left out of this article if so I will add. Flynt hated Trump, like all good leftist and tried to dig up dirt on him.

    1. But they did share a love for wealth, beautiful women, casinos, and McDonalds Big Macs.

      Sounds more like a little rivalry between a couple of bros to me.

      1. They shared boasting about pussy grabbing. However Flynt never claimed to grab a pussy that didn’t want to be grabbed.

        1. Neither did Trump.

          1. Uh, yes he did. He boasted about grabbing pussy without asking first. That he claimed they wanted it, is just what the creeps always say. “She wanted it”. It’s one of the most reliable markers of abuse. “She wanted it”.

            1. The phrase “they let YOU” does not indicate anything outside of acceptance and allowance.

              1. Brandyfuck knows, but he still chose to be dishonest about it.

  12. Speaking of abrasive, tasteless and uncompromising, comix legend S. Clay Wilson died last week too.

  13. I remember paging thru a 70s Hustler that had an illo of Sophia Loren spread out nude on a giant slice of pizza.
    She sued Flynt and I thought ‘Man, she’s going to win – you can’t do that’ and Flynt won, which made me re-think things and I took another step towards freethinking.

  14. The Falwell case wasn’t about free speech, it was about libel. And libel is a known exception to the First Amendment, so libel remains a crime. Whether or not is should be a crime is a different topic. It’s gets messy because Falwell was a public figure. But the parody in question was clearly a parody. Flynt won the suit because it was clearly a parody and one is allowed to parody public figures.

    So this case really wasn’t the advance in free speech everyone says it was.

    The big advance was in the pornography. Flynt pushed the boundaries so that hardcore pornography is now protected by the First Amendment. But even that’s not the case, because of the community standard obscenity stuff. What really pushed the free speech forward was the changing community standards. No one really cares about Hustler (and worse) magazines sitting on the newstand shelves any more. And Hustler can still get in trouble if it can be proved it violates those community standards.

    In short, the law is a lagging indicator of the culture, and it was the change in culture that provided for an expansion of free speech. The various lawsuits against Flynt were just the last dying gasps of a socially hyper-conservative legal system.

    1. Flynt won the suit because it was clearly a parody and one is allowed to parody public figures.

      So this case really wasn’t the advance in free speech everyone says it was.

      Tough, but fair.

    2. The various lawsuits against Flynt were just the last dying gasps of a socially hyper-conservative legal system.

      Given our current cultural situation, I could be inclined to say socially-apprehensive legal system. Not all the social conservatives were rabid Bible-thumpers.

      “It [feminism] is mixed up with a muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands.” – G.K. Chesterton

      It takes a pretty tortured mind to say that porn producers have a more personal interest or greater financial stake in women, individually or collectively, than fathers/sons/brothers/husbands do.

      1. *looks at room full of hooker*

        There are five very bad father’s I’d like to thank for this evening.

        1. damn voice recognition can’t even get plurals and apostrophe’s correct.

    3. “The various lawsuits against Flynt were just the last dying gasps of a socially hyper-conservative legal system.”

      Today people still get censored because of hurt feelings, so I guess that’s a sign of a robust conservatism?

  15. This country owes Larry a debt of gratitude. Hustler is a treasure.

  16. Didn’t I see Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s likeness in the Asshole of the Month page….or was that the failed centerfold page?

  17. In the interest of venturing out of the hagiographic reservation J.D. has constructed, should we not take judicial notice of Flynt’s embrace of progressivism?

  18. Soon Flynt will be as intersectionally irrelevant as Farwell.

  19. If you want to celebrate boundary-pushing without endorsing the substance of what they said, then why not find some example of racists being censored – or Trump supporters (they’re the same thing anyway, right?).

    1. I don’t think it is the subject matter, sex and nudity, anyone is objecting to. The observation it that Flynt was abrasive, tasteless and uncompromising. The article says that in a positive way. All of that is true and he would have been the first to say so.

      With racism it is racism itself which is objected to. Not the style of the individual expressing it. It is not consensual. It is not a normal part of human existence like sex. It is not harmless and in my opinion racist statements and actions are a violation of libertarian principles and the NAP.

      Trump supporters have hardly been silent and censored. I have hardly been able to hear myself through the din.

      There have been isolated cases where social media has banned people who happen to be Trump supporters and Trump himself, for other reasons basically because they feel that they were spreading false information. Agree with that or not.

      It is not the same thing. Flynt cannot sue a store for refusing to carry his products. I can’t sue this website if they ban me. He can fight governments for trying to shut down his own store as happened in Cincinnati.

      1. “I don’t think it is the subject matter, sex and nudity, anyone is objecting to.”

        I think the subject matter is “recreational sex is good.”

        And as for comparing the harms with the harms of racism, given that racism has led to murders and massacres then maybe racism is more evil-er – but the ideology of recreational sex has contributed to its share of family breakup, disease, etc.

        1. And don’t forget the actual misogyny in Flynt’s work – you don’t have to be a feminist to note it. Feminists don’t have a monopoly on defending female honor.

      2. Free speech and consensual fun are individualist. Racial collectivism is collectivist.

    2. Reaspn only celebrates the heroes amongst us, like Flynt, not icky people like Trump

  20. Recreational sex is not bad. Adultery in a monogamous relationship is because it causes harm. It is a violation of an intimate trust.

    Racism is bad in and of itself. I stated my opinions on the subject above. I have more. Race is a biological myth which is how I see things. Libertarian philosophy focuses on the natural rights of individuals.

    Mysogyny is a very subjective term. It is many years since i leafed through one of his magazines. All I recall was they were outrageous and weird. He argued successfully in court that it was satire.

    1. His misogyny gets mentioned by ABC news – in an article whose headline hails him as a “First Amendment battler”:

      “The magazine featured raw, politically incorrect humor, photos of female genitalia and sometimes S&M and bondage scenes with women tied and gagged. It shocked the public with a 1978 cover depicting a woman being fed into a meat grinder.”

      https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/hustler-founder-amendment-battler-larry-flynt-dies-75821563

  21. Excellent article. I was challenged by the suggestion that one of God’s Own Prohibitionists might cowardly shoot someone in Marjorie Greene Teeth’s home state. But Tuccille is a diligent journalist so I guess it’s true.

  22. Liberal degenerates and other imbeciles imagine rocking out with your cock out somehow protects unpopular political speech

  23. Never knew this about Flynt. Thanks so much for sharing. The boys from masonry Calgary will blow a gasket after hearing this. We were just talking about it last night.

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