BY JONAS BLANK
When Larry Flynt first began publishing Hustler magazine almost 30 years ago, he probably had no idea that it would one day qualify him to speak at Harvard Law School.
But if the fame and notoriety were unexpected, he sure didn’t show it last night at Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall.
“Thank you very much,” Flynt began. “I’ve been waiting for this invitation for over 27 years.” And that was the last time last night that the idiosyncratic adult magazine publisher — whose First Amendment battles have gone all the way to the Supreme Court — showed even a hint of humility.
True to his public image, Flynt’s speech was as unabashed and unapologetic as it was rambling and eccentric. Amid his vehement defense of the First Amendment was an unmistakable bravado, a penchant for self-congratulation and a healthy dose of often-offensive humor. But even in his most inarticulate moments, Flynt — speaking from his gold-plated wheelchair — demonstrated why he has become such a powerful and controversial figure in the battle for First Amendment rights.
Flynt, who has often used Hustler to promote his political beliefs, began by launching into a lengthy political screed that began with Thomas Paine and the framers of the Constitution and ended with Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.
After calling Bush v. Gore “the most frightening abuse” of the Constitution in history, Flynt predicted that Bush would be a one-term president. Calling Bush an extremist “to the right of Attila the Hun,” Flynt decried the president as the result of fortunate parenthood, Ralph Nader’s campaign and Al Gore’s bumbling. As for the president’s high approval ratings, he said that, “In the wake of 9/11, people would have rallied around Ronald McDonald.” Flynt spared no harsh words for terrorists, either, saying, “they should be hunted down and exterminated.”
Before ending his talk of politics, Flynt highlighted his role in the 1998 Clinton impeachment proceedings. During the impeachment, Flynt purchased a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post offering up to $1 million to anyone who could prove that they had been engaged in an adulterous affair with a member of Congress. He got several affirmative responses.
“My motive was to expose hypocrisy,” Flynt said, noting that his campaign eventually forced Rep. Bob Livingston — who was the Speaker-elect of the Houset at the time — to step down. Flynt described a New York Times interview in which Livingston called him a “bottom feeder.” When called for comment, Flynt replied, “Yes, and look what I found down there.” Though he stopped short of taking credit for saving Clinton’s presidency, Flynt said that after Livingston’s exposure, the whole tenor of the impeachment changed.
“Clinton’s my man,” Flynt leered. “He knew what to do with that desk in the Oval Office.”
But it was when the topic turned to First Amendment rights that Flynt found his often-offensive stride.
“The Founding Fathers weren’t thinking about Hustler magazine when they were making the Constitution,” Flynt said. “But what they did think about was the unrestricted right of free choice. That’s where the First Amendment gets its vitality and meaning from.”
Arguing that Americans have begun to take their civil liberties for granted, Flynt portrayed pornography as the first line of defense against tyranny, citing what he described as the gradual erosion of speech freedoms that occurred under Nazism: “Freedom is lost a book at a time, a movie at a time, a magazine at a time.”
According to Flynt, Hustler magazine is a perfect example of the need for First Amendment rights.
“The 1st Amendment is freedom for the thaought you hate the most,” Flynt said. “If you’re not going to offend anyone, you don’t need First Amendment protection.” After all, he said, the mainstream media rarely offends anyone other than O.J. Simpson and Gary Condit.
There was little chance that no one would walk away offended last night. Flynt attacked what he called the nation’s “screwed up priorities,” which, he said, allow pictures of mutilated bodies to appear in newspapers but regulate explicit depictions of sex.
“The church has had its hand on our crotch for over 2,000 years,” Flynt said, calling right-wing critics such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “just the flip side of Osama bin Laden.” He was even less generous with what he termed “radical feminist” critics like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin. Though Flynt said that he supports the women’s movement — and claimed that his company has more female executives than any other company of its size in Los Angeles — he described Steinem and Dworkin’s sole accomplishment as “getting a bunch of ugly women to march.” He then went on to make a lewd joke about how both women must be angry “because they still have to sleep on the wet spot.”
Flynt took several controversial stands on the role of pornography, arguing that “one man’s porn is another man’s art” and calling for virtually unlimited access to all forms of pornography other than those directly involving minors. Rather than objectify women, he argued, “porn frees you up and allows you to be less inhibited.” Flynt added that women do not need to be told how to think, act or react to his material. Rather than exploiting themselves for pay, he reasoned that women model for his magazine to preserve their appearance for posterity: “A girl gets up one morning and looks in the mirror and she says, ‘Damn, I’m hot. And I’m not going to look like this forever.'” Several former Hustler models have gone on to become executives in the company, including Flynt’s now-deceased wife, Althea.
Still, Flynt did not fail to draw controversy. In fact, a group of protesters gathered outside the auditorium prior to Flynt’s speech to distribute literature and express their disapproval for Hustler magazine.
“The protest was not at all to oppose his freedom to use the First Amendment,” said 1L Anne Robinson, who participated in the protest. “We just thought as a female community that there were far better people to speak on First Amendment rights than Larry Flynt — he’s not an academic. He contributes to the degradation of women by combining violence with sex.”
Several audience members also challenged Flynt, citing what they described as a causal link between pornography and violence. He would have none of it, stating that the sexual acts his magazine promotes are consensual and that it is sexual inhibition, rather than sexual freedom, that leads to violence against women. “I don’t think that pornography promotes rape,” he said. “I think the lack of pornography promotes rape.” When some female audience members — some of them protesters who had entered the auditorium — tried to push Flynt further, they were shouted down by an increasingly raucous audience. One woman professed her support for pornography. Another asked Flynt about the effect of pornography on her sex life. When asked the best way to educate children about sex, Flynt replied — only half-jokingly — “give them a subscription to Hustler.”
Flynt’s no-holds-barred approach makes him both a difficult and appropriate First Amendment figure. As he says, “The price of freedom is tolerating things we don’t necessarily like.” Flynt’s name invites all the most unpleasant adjectives. He has been shot, he has been vilified in the press, he has been scorned and hated.
Flynt would have audiences believe he is a crusader; his opponents prefer to view him as no more than an incoherent smut peddler pimping offensive images for profit. If his speech last night is any guide, the truth of the man lies somewhere in between. By virtue of his personality and in spite of it, Flynt has become an unlikely but acceptable symbol for free speech. He is a complicated example of a right whose application is often messy, whose most difficult battles rarely come without intense controversy. As he joins John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oliver Stone, Rudolph Giuliani
and even his nemesis Jerry Falwell among the HLS Forum’s distinguished roster of past speakers, Flynt has perhaps earned the ultimate approval from a society that has largely spurned him. History will have to decide whether he deserved it or not.