Poised For Pornography Protests: The ACLU Defends Its Controversial Speaker


On Friday, April 21st at 5pm, the ACLU of HLS invites the law school community to come to the Ames Courtroom to hear Larry Flynt discuss his notorious First Amendment battles. In one of his two Supreme Court appearances, he won a ruling that citizens may lampoon public figures without fear of legal reprisal, a proposition that is central to public discourse.

While Mr. Flynt made headlines in the 1970s for his scandalous publication of Hustler magazine, which sparked high profile obscenity litigation, many students today know the Hollywood version of his life from the 1996 movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt. In the movie, Mr. Flynt was portrayed by the lovable Woody Harrelson — but in real life, he has made his share of enemies. The Reverend Jerry Falwell sued him for slander, a white supremacist serial killer attempted to assassinate him for publishing pictures of interracial coupling, and anti-pornography feminists have argued that his explicit publications effect the systematic subordination of women. Ultimately, the very controversy surrounding Larry Flynt’s public persona is part of the reason to support his appearance at HLS; Flynt’s presence is a perfect example of the right to free speech that should not be abridged by a heckler’s veto. The ACLU has often come under fire for defending the rights of unpopular figures to express their beliefs. For instance, few in Boston have forgiven the Massachusetts ACLU chapter’s infamous defense of the right of segregationists to march through South Boston during the busing crisis. Yet it is the extreme example that proves one’s true commitment to civil liberties, even in the face of personal opposition to the content of that protected speech.

This is by no means an attempt to belittle the very real emotions that may be aroused by Mr. Flynt’s appearance on campus. Various constituencies have asserted that a publisher of pornography, while not in violation of any criminal statute, is still not an appropriate speaker in an educational community concerned about the protection and promotion of women’s interests. The ACLU understands these concerns and plans to make room for those who have strong feelings against pornography. In fact, we are actively recruiting faculty and students for a panel preceding the event in order to present opposing views on this issue, in addition to facilitating any protests that may be organized. However, it is the ACLU’s stance that only by a strict adherence to the First Amendment, which allows all types of sexually explicit expression, will we be sure to protect all ideas about sexuality and personal autonomy, however deviant or offensive to others.

The ACLU has come under attack in the controversy surrounding this event on another front. Mr. Flynt will be filming the speech for a documentary about his life. Some have taken this to mean that Mr. Flynt will purport to have the Harvard Law School stamp of approval for his enterprises, or that he will unfairly profit from the Harvard name and the school’s reputation. However, Mr. Flynt’s biographer, like anyone seeking to film at Harvard University, may not shoot outside on the campus, nor may he include any Harvard insignia in his work. For that reason, there will be a screen covering the Harvard shield behind the judges’ bench in the Ames courtroom. Of course, the documentary will acknowledge that his speech took place at Harvard. However, the University has no content-based policy about whose event may be filmed, just as there are no rules about whom students may invite to speak, in keeping with First Amendment values. Hosting such a controversial figure is a sign of the school’s commitment to the open exchange of ideas; it is hardly a signal that Harvard itself promotes the publication of pornography. It may be of interest to note that the event will conclude with a question and answer session, in which no topic is off limits. Those who would like to make their mark on Flynt’s documentary are invited to do so by contributing their questions to this portion of the presentation.

Ultimately, it is our hope that this event can bring the campus together by bringing thoughtful debate to what has proved to be a very hot-button topic. The ACLU wishes to make clear its commitment to First Amendment freedoms when it comes to controversial opinions, to pornography, and not the least, to protests. As a result, we would like to extend our help to any groups looking to arrange a forum to express a contrary view. Please feel free to email spullman@law.harvard.edu for further assistance.

Sandra Pullman is the President of the ACLU-HLS.

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