That time Hustler magazine tweaked televangelist Jerry Falwell in a parody ad — and Larry Flynt took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court!
Since the early 1970s, Larry Flynt has fought an assortment of battles against extremist feminists, far-right religious nuts, and hypocritical cops and politicians to publish Hustler, his crude, blue-collar answer to more “mainstream” adult fare such as Playboy and Penthouse.
As a result, the patriot smut peddler has done jail time and spent untold millions in legal fees. Detractors have called him every name in the book. And in 1978, a racist serial killer by the name of Joseph Paul Franklin nearly took his life in a botched assassination attempt that left Flynt paralyzed for life.
Franklin later claimed that a 1975 interracial spread in Hustler featuring a black man and a white woman motivated him to try to kill Flynt.
Ironically, the physical magazine Flynt sacrificed so much for is harder to find nowadays than a public pay phone.
Technology made Flynt’s print mag obsolete, though Larry Flynt Publications (LFP) still produces a limited run, which you can order via subscription or pick up at one of Flynt’s many Hustler Hollywood stores or in the gift shop of his Hustler Casino in Gardena, California.
Flynt, who recently turned 75, hawks plenty of porn-for-pay online. But the web is a panoply of nudity and kink. Online, Flynt is but one player among millions.
Moreover, much of the explicit content online is free to the taker.
When I interviewed Flynt in 2016, he readily admitted that most of LFP’s revenue stream now derives from retail operations, the casino, and Hustler movies shown in hotels worldwide.
Simply put, he and other pornographers won their war against censorship, and they won it so decisively that it’s getting harder and harder to make a buck off footage of folks doing the nasty.
But Flynt’s contribution to society is more profound than the reservoirs of ribaldry flooding the internet, as Rolling Stone reminds us in a recent “flashback” feature that revisits Flynt’s 1988 U.S. Supreme Court win in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell.
You see, Flynt punctuates his gynecologically precise spreads with a sort of MAD-magazine-gone-XXX irreverence. That includes parodies like the one Hustler gave the world in 1983: a knockoff of a then-common ad campaign for the Italian aperitif Campari wherein a celebrity discussed his or her “first time” imbibing the beverage.
Hustler used the premise to skewer one of its archenemies (and frequent targets): the Reverend Jerry Falwell, self-righteous, gay-hating televangelist and founder of the politically influential Moral Majority, a powerhouse of the Christian Right during the Reagan era.
Writes Rolling Stone contributor Andy Hoglund:
In the parody, a dignified headshot of Falwell complements a bottle of the imported aperitif, with a transcript of the supposed exchange written in-between. Asked by the interviewer about his “first time,” Falwell responds: “I never really expected to make it with Mom, but then after she showed all the other guys in town such a good time, I thought ‘What the hell!'” He then recounts a Campari-fueled sexual experience with his mother (and a goat) in an outhouse.
The ad concludes with Falwell highlighting his preference for Campari: “I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit. You don’t think I could lay down all that bullshit sober, do you?” (In small print at the bottom of the page, the magazine wrote, ”Ad parody — not to be taken seriously.”)
The fake interview was politically barbed, to be sure, not to mention crude. But it was also an oddly personal moment and a focal point in the ongoing culture wars. Eventually it would set a key precedent for freedom of speech.
For years, Falwell — who exercised his significant political capital championing conservative causes and bemoaning the porn industry — consistently singled out publications like Hustler, and its owner Larry Flynt, as corrupting players in American life. Flynt, in particular, typified “sleaze merchantry.”
To Flynt, however, Falwell was a hypocrite whose rhetoric caused outsized harm. Hustler (dubbed “the only honest publication out there” by its owner) began needling Falwell, publishing the advertisement featuring the Baptist preacher’s deceased mother. Falwell sued for libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, demanding $45 million in damages, approximately $100 million by today’s standards.
A U.S. district court judge dismissed Falwell’s invasion-of-privacy claim. The other two counts went to trial.
Though jurors found the ad too fantastic for Falwell to have been libeled by it, they decided in Falwell’s favor on the claim of “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” awarding the TV preacher $200,000.
Flynt refused to back down, appealing the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. One of his key arguments: If a target of satire could claim damages for having his or her feelings hurt, then an important element of American political discourse — from political cartoons to Saturday Night Live sketches — would be on the chopping block.
In 1988, the high court agreed in a landmark 8-0 decision. Ultra-conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist penned the majority opinion, ruling that the First Amendment trumps the sore butts of public figures such as Falwell.
It wasn’t enough, Rehnquist observed, for Falwell to maintain that Hustler‘s Campari parody was so “outrageous” that it should be exempted from normal First Amendment protections.
Concluded the chief justice:
“‘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. An ‘outrageousness’ standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.”
The win stands as Flynt’s finest moment, the vindication of an “unseemly man,” as the pornographer labels himself in the title of his 2008 memoir.
Law students nationwide study the case, and the legal battle became the backbone of the 1996 Milos Forman-directed biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt, in which Woody Harrelson memorably portrays the porn kingpin.
In reality, most explicit adult content is consumed and forgotten as quickly as chewing gum or video games.
So I decided to do this…let's see what happens. pic.twitter.com/Xpy4qrwHU7
— Larry Flynt (@ImLarryFlynt) October 15, 2017
But Flynt’s stubbornness, and his willingness to use his wallet to advance freedom of speech when settling the Falwell case would have been cheaper in the long run, created an enduring legacy — for which every comedian and political cartoonist, and those who enjoy their work, ought to be grateful.
If that’s not sufficient reason to give thanks for Flynt, consider that the sultan of smut recently offered a $10 million bounty for information leading to the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump.
Hope springs eternal.
Click here for the Rolling Stone piece:
And here for the U.S. Supreme Court case:
And here’s a 2007 op-ed Flynt wrote for the Los Angeles Times, about how he and Falwell eventually became friends: