First Amendment Warrior Phil Harvey, Founder of Adam & Eve, Dead at 83

Phil Harvey
Adam & Eve founder and free speech champion Phil Harvey.(Gopigopal via Wikimedia)
Phil Harvey, founder of the adult mail-order giant Adam & Eve, passed away Dec. 2. His DKT Liberty Project defended the 1A rights of ex-Backpage owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin.

Entrepreneur, philanthropist and free-speech stalwart Phil Harvey, founder of the pioneering adult retail company Adam & Eve, passed away Dec. 2 at his Maryland home, according to news reports. He was 83.

As Adam & Eve’s website explains, Harvey created the company in 1971 “as part of his master’s thesis in family planning” from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. What began as an effort to supply developing nations with contraceptives morphed into one of the most successful mail-order businesses in the U.S., selling a variety of adult products.

Harvey’s company and his support for reproductive rights worldwide through non-profit organizations such as Populations Services International and later, DKT International, made him a target of the Christian right. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration and its puritanical Attorney General Edwin Meese set out to eradicate Adam & Eve as part of the federal government’s war on pornography and sexual expression.

In a recent obituary, Reason magazine quotes a review by editor-at-large Nick Gillespie of Harvey’s 2001 book The Government vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve, recounting Harvey’s emergence as a free speech warrior:

In 1986, Adam & Eve was invaded by law enforcement officials on the hunt for “obscene” materials. Thus began an eight-year battle, in which Harvey fought the federal government for the right to sell dirty movies, condoms, and other sexual aids to willing adults. After winning an obscenity trial in conservative Alamance County (during which prosecutors made a show of entering into evidence a “foot-long double dong” sold by Adam & Eve), Harvey found himself up against the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Edwin Meese.

The Meese DOJ pursued a nationwide strategy, “Project Postporn,” in which it filed simultaneous, multiple-district prosecutions against porn sellers. The goal—often successful—was to scare vendors into quickly accepting draconian settlements that allowed them to avoid or reduce jail time by shuttering their doors. Harvey took a different tack: He fought the federal obscenity charges (eventually spending some $3 million on legal fees), and brought a civil suit against the feds, ultimately settling all matters largely on his terms.

It was the first of many fights Harvey took on in the name of reproductive health and sexual expression, Reason writes. Harvey opposed legislative restrictions on “nonprescription contraception” and requirements that “any recipient of government money to fight AIDS must publicly state they are opposed to prostitution,” winning both cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Significantly, Harvey’s nonprofit DKT Liberty Project backed legal challenges promoting freedom of speech. In the Lacey/Larkin case, DKT intervened on behalf of former Backpage.com owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, once submitting an amicus brief to courts on behalf of Lacey and Larkin’s challenge to the federal government’s seizure of all of their assets, a violation of the First Amendment.

The DKT Liberty Project also joined other free speech organizations in support of Lacey and Larkin’s 2019 motion to dismiss the federal indictment against them because the feds’ absurd theory of the case — that Lacey and Larkin are somehow vicariously liable for adult-themed ads posted by Backpage’s users — flew in the face of First Amendment freedoms.

DKT argued that the government’s prosecution of Backpage’s onetime owners “poses a grave threat  to individual liberty and the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment,” adding,  “The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution presumptively protects all speech from government infringement.”

It continued: “The burden for rebutting that presumptive protection rests with the government…As a consequence, the government may not prosecute a speaker for his or her speech unless and until the government establishes that the speech is not protected.”

So far, DKT’s efforts on behalf of Lacey and Larkin have not been successful, but the similarities between Adam & Eve’s fight against the DOJ in the 1980s and Lacey and Larkin’s battle with the DOJ now should be lost on no one.

During the disastrous first trial of the Lacey/Larkin defendants in September, ads sometimes featuring nude and semi-clothed women — in one case, a photo of a woman’s hand holding a dildo — were offered by the government as being indicative of illegal activity, specifically, misdemeanor prostitution.

One of the government’s key witnesses rebutted this presumption on cross-examination. Many of these perfectly legal images on Backpage could easily have appeared on a website for adult products such as Adam & Eve.

More than three decades after Ed Meese sought to shut down Harvey’s company, Meese’s ideological progeny are hard at work trying to censor free expression and outlaw benign images and language that the government has no business regulating.

In so many ways, Harvey’s fight is one that never ends.

Please also see:
Prosecution, Defense in Lacey/Larkin Case Lock Horns over Motion to Dismiss for Double Jeopardy
and
Lacey/Larkin Defense: Government ‘Goaded’ Mistrial as Part of Pattern of Misconduct

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

One comment

  1. Stephen, I’m starting to think that the “Big G” is just running out the clock until Mike and / or Jim cease to exist on this earthly plane of existence themselves.

    Sadly my prognostication may prove to be true…

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