It was October 2001, not exactly the heyday of publisher Larry Flynt’s many controversies, and professor Robert Richards couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.
Through the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State, which Richards founded, the professor wanted to bring Flynt to speak to students and faculty. He found the backlash jarring.
A conservative radio host in Philadelphia had shared the university president’s contacts, encouraging listeners to bombard Penn State’s leadership. A religious group had sent its flock the email address for the college of communication’s dean. A state legislator had joined in stoking the outrage, even threatening the university’s funding over the Flynt visit and other campus events he found unseemly.
An associate dean in the college of communications at the time, Richards found himself fielding complaints from angry faculty, which he didn’t understand. He assured them Flynt was not coming to campus to promote his flagship Hustler magazine or any other skin rag.
Flynt, who died this week at 78, was unfazed, as always, Richards told CNN. Blowback was like oxygen for him, and he never relented in championing the American values of free press, speech and expression.
“Obviously, we were not bringing Larry to campus to talk about pornography. We were bringing Larry to campus to talk about his First Amendment contributions, which were legion,” Richards said.
Colleges and universities are the grounds to test ideas, he said. Such marketplaces ensure the best notions rise to the surface. It’s the essence of the First Amendment, the professor said, explaining ideas like Flynt’s require the most protection.
“You don’t need a First Amendment to protect the popular viewpoints. The majority takes care of itself in terms of popularity and popular viewpoints,” he said.
That’s the message Flynt sought to deliver when he told The Seattle Times in 1996: “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.”
Richards assured his colleagues there would be a question-and-answer session and urged them to engage the publisher, to challenge his ideas. Flynt, he knew, would relish the opportunity.
‘Taste is not your strong suit, right, Larry?’
Richards met Flynt in 1998. He considered him a friend. Whereas most people associate Flynt with his peddling busty women and blue jokes, Richards will remember him as a First Amendment lion.
In the early 2000s, Flynt estimated he had spent about $60 million fighting for the First Amendment, the professor said. Many are familiar with Flynt’s legal battles over obscenity. A case in Cincinnati saw him briefly jailed in 1977 before his sentence was overturned on appeal.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1996, Flynt said his original goal in life was to make money and have fun, “but when the judge sentenced me to (seven to) 25 years in prison, I couldn’t take the First Amendment for granted anymore. … Today, I can walk into any courtroom in the country with any lawyer and chances are, I’ll know more about First Amendment law than they do. I don’t say it egotistically. I’ve had to live and breathe it all the time.”
Another obscenity charge in Georgia in 1978 was dismissed after a White supremacist, incensed over a Hustler photo spread featuring a Black man and White woman, shot Flynt, paralyzing him and landing him in the gold-plated wheelchair that became a trademark of his media appearances.
The highlight of his First Amendment resume came when televangelist Jerry Falwell sued Hustler for libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress after the magazine ran a parody about Falwell losing his virginity to his mother.
“In an outhouse, and he had to kick the goat out first. I mean, it was clearly a satire,” Flynt said during an appearance with Falwell on CNN in 1997, the day “The People v. Larry Flynt” debuted in theaters.
“Taste is not your strong suit, right, Larry?” interviewer Larry King asked the publisher.
“That’s right,” Flynt replied.
Flynt could’ve easily settled the suit – “he could’ve written a $200,000 check like you and I could write a check for $10,” Richards said – but his legal battles over obscenity had instilled in him a genuine appreciation for the 45 words composing the First Amendment.
“He wanted to push them forward so there would be precedent,” Richards said. “He felt that as a publisher he had an obligation to push for advances in the First Amendment.”
Flynt never imagined he’d win the fight between the preacher and the pornographer. He lost the case in every jurisdiction before arriving at the US Supreme Court, which ruled 8-0 in his favor, saying, “The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.”
It was a victory for all speech, Roberts said. Every law school in the country teaches the landmark case, he said, and the ruling came to protect so much that Americans consume – from political cartoons to comics’ routines to Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of President Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” That sort of commentary might look different today had Falwell been allowed to claim emotional distress based on the bawdy Hustler satire, he said.
“All of these things that so many of us enjoy today in the movies or even in print is directly related to the decision by the Supreme Court in Hustler v. Falwell,” Richards said.
‘He just could not stand hypocrisy’
Flynt used the First Amendment as a cape to crusade against what he saw as hypocrisy in politics, which he loathed. He regularly put up huge bounties for information to take down politicians.
He famously ended Congressman Bob Livingston’s political career in 1999 with reports of extramarital affairs. As recently as 2017, he offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Trump’s impeachment.
“He just could not stand hypocrisy, and he wanted to root it out any time he saw it, and he wanted to make sure people found out about it,” Richards said.
What people often fail to understand, according to the professor, is that Flynt considered himself a publisher before a pornographer. In the ’90s, as the Beverly Hills-based Larry Flynt Publications expanded into adult video production, Flynt added to his portfolio numerous non-pornography titles, including magazines geared toward photography, computing, video games, music and even maternity fashion.
The Navy veteran opposed many of America’s military campaigns and tapped his largesse to sue the government to grant reporters wider access to conflicts, first in 1983 challenging restrictions on the press during the US invasion of Grenada and again in 1991 during the Gulf War. He sued in 2001 after the Defense Department rejected his request to embed a reporter with a special forces unit in Afghanistan. None of the suits was successful.
Also an opponent of the death penalty, Flynt launched court battles to gain access to documents that would reveal the identity of an anesthesiologist involved in Missouri’s executions. He also fought to unseal docket entries related to the state’s execution protocols following the lethal injection of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, the man who shot and paralyzed Flynt in Georgia. (Flynt preferred life in prison for Franklin, he said.)
Both lawsuits failed, but they demonstrate how Flynt never quit fighting for speech and the press, whether he was taking on the establishment, standing alongside Charlie Hebdo (the Parisian magazine attacked in 2015 by Muslim radicals) and Black Lives Matter, or grappling with what he considered censorship by Google, Twitter and Facebook.
He was quick to cite Thomas Jefferson, who once said he’d prefer newspapers without a government over a government without newspapers, and wrote government abuse and fraud might run rampant “unless you have dependable journalists who shine light into the shadows and hold the bastards accountable.”
In a 2015 column celebrating Hustler’s 41st anniversary, Flynt boasted, “We have regularly offended the high and mighty, the powerful and corrupt, the pompous and shameless with uncompromising investigations and unscathing satire. That’s what the First Amendment protects – speech that rocks the boat and rattles the complacent.”
‘Larry Flynt didn’t save the First Amendment …’
Flynt, of course, went on to give his 2001 speech at Penn State. He arrived with his fifth and final wife, Liz Berrios, and a small entourage on his private jet before traveling to the Penn State auditorium, which had to be closed off because of fire regulations on capacity.
The school paper, the Daily Collegian, reported Flynt’s opponents at the university, including the president of a feminist alliance and associate communications professor Mary Beth Oliver, stood ready to challenge him. Oliver had posted on her office door a 1978 Hustler cover featuring a woman being fed into a meat grinder, with the caption, “Who is this woman? … Your mother? Your sister?”
“I think it’s possible to stand up for the First Amendment and simultaneously acknowledge that sometimes the First Amendment publishes things that can be very hurtful,” Oliver told the student paper, “and to not acknowledge that hurt is a cause for concern.”
Flynt dodged questions of misogyny, saying no Hustler models had sued him or complained, and steered the discussion toward the Constitution, according to the Daily Collegian.
“When I was gunned down in the streets of Georgia and paralyzed,” Flynt said, “I saw that pretty much as my life being over, and I made a calculated decision to spend the rest of my life devoted to expanding the parameters of free speech.”
Students lined the back of the room, happy to stand and listen as Flynt walked them through the Falwell case, from the original filing in Falwell’s backyard of Virginia to the historic Supreme Court ruling, Richards recalled.
“He was always looking for a court challenge and kind of spent the speech talking about that,” Richards said. “He loved talking about the Falwell case. It’s certainly a crowning achievement in his First Amendment work.”
Flynt spent ample time answering questions and stayed after the billed closing time to talk to people who didn’t get a chance to address him during the Q&A session.
“He loved to spar with people who would come up, and he’s very good at it,” the professor said.
After the event, Richards rode with Flynt to dinner, and the publisher said he heard that his appearance at Penn State had gotten the school “into a little hot water with a state legislator,” which the professor confirmed.
The following month, the state legislator was featured in Hustler’s monthly “a**hole of the month” column.
Despite that many who rely on free speech consider Flynt a hero, the publisher – for all his bombast and gusto – never liked the label. He found it “embarrassing,” he told the Tribune in 1996.
“I wouldn’t have given my legs for anything or anyone, so I think that disqualifies me for hero status,” he told the newspaper.
CNN’s Larry King pressed him on the matter during the 1997 interview.
“You don’t consider yourself a hero?”
“No,” Flynt replied flatly.
Falwell interjected: “Larry didn’t save the First Amendment. The First Amendment saved him.”
Falwell continued but Flynt interrupted him.
“First thing he’s said I agree with.”