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Rest In Peace, Larry Flynt: Renown First Amendment Advocate, Vietnam Veteran, Entrepreneur Dies Aged 78

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Thursday, February 11, 2021

Larry Flynt, known globally as an entrepreneur and First Amendment champion, has died aged 78.

Mr. Flynt had a strong desire for service to the nation, and first enlisted in the United States Army using a false birth certificate when he was aged 15, and had dropped out of the 9th grade. After 7 months, in 1960, he was declared supernumerary and honorably discharged. He then repeated that performance, and joined the United States Navy, where he served for 5 years, and was honorably discharged in 1964 during the Vietnam War. While serving aboard the USS Enterprise as a radar operator, he was on duty during the operation to recover John Glenn’s space capsule after splashdown following his first space orbit.

Larry Flynt (center) makes his way through a crowd at a rally in Cincinnati in 1977.

He was a native Southerner, and was born and raised in Lakeville, Kentucky, in Magoffin County, a still-small village in the practical middle of nowhere, in the state’s eastern central portion, due east of Lexington about a 2-hour drive on Kentucky State Highway 9009.

Mr. Flynt may perhaps best be known as pornographer, and publisher of Hustler magazine, a title of which he was unashamed, and for which an attempted assassin’s bullet severed his spinal cord outside the courthouse in Gwinnett County Georgia, on March 6, 1978, where he was facing obscenity charges, which he won. From that point on, he was never able to walk, and relied upon a wheelchair for mobility, albeit, a custom-made, gold-plated one.

For many years thereafter, Mr. Flynt’s sniper went undiscovered until an arrest for two unrelated killings elsewhere, when the suspect confessed to being Flynt’s shooter. White Supremacist John Paul Franklin said the reason he shot Flynt, was because he objected to photos in Hustler depicting interracial couples. He was executed by the state of Missouri in 2013 – an act which Mr. Flynt disapproved of as an opponent of the death penalty.

For many years, he had a long-term friendship with the Reverend Jerry Falwell – the founding pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, founder of Moral Majority – a religious right-wing political lobbying group active in the 1980s, and founder of Liberty University – which came about as a result of a parody ad published in Hustler magazine, his company’s premiere sexual entertainment magazine.

Flynt wrote a 2007 article for the Los Angeles Times in which he described the events:

“After several years of listening to him bash me and reading his insults, I decided it was time to start poking some fun at him. So we ran a parody ad in Hustler — a takeoff on the then-current Campari ads in which people were interviewed describing ‘their first time’ [drinking the liqueur].

“In the ads, it ultimately became clear that the interviewees were describing their first time sipping Campari. But not in our parody. We had Falwell describing his ‘first time’ as having been with his mother, ‘drunk off our God-fearing asses,’ in an outhouse.”

In turn, Falwell sued the magazine and Flynt’s distribution company for libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, it was never discussed how a Baptist pastor or his church members obtained a copy of the magazine to become aware of the parody.

Falwell sued Flynt for $50 million for the parody ad – which was clearly listed as such – principally because Falwell, also a native Kentuckian, was offended by the copy which suggested that he had lost his virginity by having sex with his mother in an outhouse after getting drunk on Campari liqueur.

At trial, Hustler’s lawyers persuaded the court to drop the invasion of privacy charge. The jury split on the other two charges and found in favor of Flynt on libel and for Falwell on infliction of emotional distress, and awarded $150,000 in damages.

Flynt appealed, and the case was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court in 1988, and in an 8-0 decision, ruled that the First and 14th amendments preclude a public figure from receiving damages for emotional distress if that distress was inflicted by a caricature, parody or satire of the public figure that a reasonable person would not have interpreted as factual.

In that same LA TImes article, Larry wrote:

“To my amazement, we won. It wasn’t until after I won the case and read the justices’ unanimous decision in my favor that I realized fully the significance of what had happened. In a unanimous decision — written by, of all people, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist — the court reasoned that if it supported Falwell’s lower-court victory, no one would ever have to prove something was false and libelous to win a judgment. All anyone would have to prove is that ‘he upset me’ or ‘she made me feel bad.’ The lawsuits would be endless, and that would be the end of free speech.”

Hustler v Falwell became a landmark ruling on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and has been cited in numerous legal arguments since. Yet what may be its most surprising outcome is what later happened between the pastor and the publisher.

After 10 years following the verdict, Falwell reached out to Flynt, and the two began appearing together to discuss moral and First Amendment issues.

Larry Flynt (center) appears on CNN’s Larry King Live (left) with friend, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr. (right) on January 10, 1996.

Of that development, Larry wrote in part, that:

“I’ll never admire him for his views or his opinions. To this day, I’m not sure if his television embrace was meant to mend fences, to show himself to the public as a generous and forgiving preacher, or merely to make me uneasy. But the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.”

And until the the day Falwell died, the two men remained friends.

The Rehnquist court (REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O’CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 57. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.) ruled unanimously 8-0 in Hustler’s favor, holding that,

“In order to protect the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern, the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit public figures and public officials from recovering damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of the publication of a caricature such as the ad parody 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 State’s interest in protecting public figures from emotional distress is not sufficient to deny First Amendment protection to speech that is patently offensive and is intended to inflict emotional injury when that speech could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved. Here, respondent is clearly a “public figure”for First Amendment purposes, and the lower courts’ finding that the ad parody was not reasonably believable must be accepted. “Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression, and cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, form a basis for the award of damages for conduct such as that involved here.”

While perhaps to many, he is known exclusively as pornographer, perhaps lesser known is Larry’s role in other activities unrelated to his business empire.

To many others, Larry Flynt was considered a varied, complex and sometimes unexpected public persona. He opposed the death penalty. He favored same-sex marriage. He spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He published numerous non-pornographic mainstream periodicals. And a private foundation he created contributes to research in spinal cord injuries, child abuse, and youth violence.

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