“Speaking Freely” show recorded Aug. 18, 2004, in Los Angeles.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely”, I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Larry Flynt, a self-described pornographer, pundit, and now an author of a new book called Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth. Welcome to “Speaking Freely”.
Larry Flynt: Thank you, glad to be here.
Paulson: You have some familiarity with First Amendment issues. This whole show is about free expression, and I’m not sure there’s anybody whose name is on as many pivotal First Amendment cases as you.
Flynt: Well, I seem to have got engrossed in this battle for free speech 30 years ago. I think I had to stand in a courtroom and listen to a judge sentence me to 25 years in prison before I realized it was something that could no longer be taken for granted. And, you know, the fight’s been going on since then. We’ve won some, and we’ve lost some.
Paulson: Of course the big one was when you took on Jerry Falwell. And that stems from a satirical ad in Hustler magazine, which was a parody on an ad campaign called “The First Time”, and basically this ad suggested that Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, a religious leader, had his first sexual experience with his mother in an outhouse. And this is what you brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. Falwell sued you, and at the lower court, he actually won in a very strange way. Not for libel, because no one could believe that there was any truth to it, but because you were, in effect, mean to him; intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Flynt: They wanted me to pay Reverend Falwell $200,000 because I hurt his feelings. My attorney says “Pay it,” because he was suing me for $50 million. He said it will cost you $2 million to take it to the Supreme Court. I said, “Well, that’s where we’re going,” and we lost in the Fourth Circuit. It wasn’t looking very good then, and no one thought that the Supreme Court would ever grant cert, and they did. And their decision was unanimous. I remember Justice Rehnquist’s words even so clearly today. He said, “Simply because the government finds speech offensive does not give them the right to repress it.”
Paulson: And so pivotal that if they reached a contrary ruling that said if you deeply offend or inflict emotional harm on public figures, then what happens to the press?
Flynt: Well, what happens to the press is that means no public figure would ever have to prove libel. All he would have to do is go into a court and prove you hurt his feelings. Whether it’s a political cartoonist or an editorial writer or what have you, you know. The press would have been virtually doomed. And I don’t think it was the Supreme Court siding with me over Reverend Falwell. I think that they were looking at the practical implications of the decision if they would have ruled the other way.
Paulson: Of course, that case is a big part of a very popular movie that starred Woody Harrelson playing you in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”
Flynt: You know, I get letters all the time from law school professors who say the movie is required viewing and that they teach that course in First Amendment law at all the law schools. It’s unbelievable because, other than going back to ’64, when prayer was taken out of public schools, which was the suit by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, there had not been a major First Amendment decision other than Sullivan vs. New York Times, I guess you could say, back in that same period. So we went almost a half a century without a major First Amendment decision.
Paulson: You know, it’s interesting, looking at the way people have written about you, the way people talk about you, and you certainly have been a controversial publisher and pornographer. But there almost seems to be a dramatic difference in your public life or perception of you as a public man pre-movie and post-movie. That there is much more sympathy and much more support and much more understanding, I think, of you after the movie. Have you… Is that true?
Flynt: I started to notice that after the movie and after my autobiography came out. But when I really noticed it was when I got involved in the impeachment fiasco and exposed Congressmen Livingston and Barr and a bunch of those hypocrites. Just to let the people know who was trying Clinton that hypocrisy crossed party lines.
Paulson: Let’s talk about that. That’s a big part of your new book.
Flynt: I have had literally thousands of people come up to me, and they’re little old ladies in their 70s and 80s, and they’ll grab me by the hand and squeeze my hand and say, “I just want to thank you for what you did for the president.”
Flynt: And that’s been the most gratifying.
Paulson: Well, what you did was offer a $1 million reward to people who would come forward and reveal they had had illicit relationships, sexual relationships, with congressmen and women presumably or senators or anybody in the administration, right?
Paulson: What were you trying to accomplish with that?
Flynt: Way back in ’76, when Wilbur Mills and Wayne Hays, two very famous congressmen, were on the House Ways and Means Committee and they were involved in sex scandals in Washington, and we were trying to get information there then, and I couldn’t… Nobody was getting anywhere, and I — so I wanted to run an ad in The Washington Post, and Ben Bradlee turned it down. And I asked a friend of mine who worked at The Post to talk to him and see if he would reconsider. “No, I don’t want nothing to do with Larry Flynt.” So I wrote directly to Katherine Graham and I said, “How could you, as the publisher of a newspaper that epitomizes what the First Amendment is all about — you published not only Watergate, but the Pentagon Papers. You brought down a president, and now you want to turn down an ad that is clearly First Amendment. I just don’t understand your rationale.” I got a handwritten note back from her, which I have framed now. She said, “Mr. Flynt, please resubmit your ad.” So when I run this last ad on the Clinton impeachments, my attorney, everybody around me said, “Hey, The Times won’t take that ad, The L.A. Times won’t take it, and The Washington Post won’t take that ad.” And I said, “You guys might be surprised.” And I didn’t tell them what I was banking on, but I was banking on that there was still some people working at The Washington Post that were there when Katherine Graham said, “Run his ad.” And did, were there — and they were. They were there. So the ad sailed right through for insertion in the Sunday edition.
Paulson: So your point was that there are a lot of people in high places that have secrets they want to keep and that it’s not strictly one party or the other.
You know, it’s interesting, though, to me, about your whole approach. People who admire you, absolutely admire you, for your strong stance on the First Amendment, but then go through your history and you go, “Well, we understand the point, but you sort of crushed a couple people’s career in the process here.” Was that a good thing to do?
Flynt: Well, I think anytime you take a public position contrary to the way you live your private life, you deserve the worst. Because hypocrisy is the biggest threat that democracy has. And that’s the problem in Washington. It’s one big hornet’s nest of hypocrisy.
Paulson: Well, you have always published what you believed in your magazine. And that has always attracted, you know, lightning bolts and criticism. A couple moments in the history of Hustler, which was more explicit than most mainstream magazines of the day, and you persevered, and you discovered there was an appetite for the kind of content you had. Early on, you had a huge financial success by publishing photographs of Jackie Onassis in the nude someone had taken with a long-range telephoto lens that others in this country wouldn’t publish. Fast-forward to very recently. You are offered an opportunity to publish what purportedly are some compromising photos of Jessica Lynch, and you choose not to. Is that because you felt that what you did to Jackie Onassis wasn’t right?
Flynt: No. Jacqueline Onassis was a public figure, former first lady, she was an icon. And that’s what people were buying the magazine for — not to see her in the nude but to see the icon in the nude. This was a whole different person — purpose — than Jessica Lynch. You know, Jessica Lynch was used as a pawn for the Administration to sell their war in Iraq. Sort of a modern-day Joan of Arc I guess you would say. We found out all those stories were not true. All of her injuries occurred as a result of her Humvee turning over. She never emptied her clip, what the enemy has said. It jammed, and not a single round was ever fired. She was finally taken to the hospital. Even her captors made an attempt, you know, to give her back to the U.S. government.
Paulson: And to her credit, she has told us all this in her own way, and never pretended to be a hero.
Flynt: True, but the reason why I didn’t publish the nude photographs I had of her was, she had not claimed to be anybody other than what she was. You know, and she was just simply being exploited by the military. Her sexual activity, you know, had nothing to do with her involvement in the war. I mean, there was no correlation.
Paulson: And yet you bought the photographs.
Paulson: To secure them?
Flynt: Bought ‘em. Got ‘em in my safe. I told her if she ever wanted them she could call me and I’d send them to her, but she never called so…
Paulson: You know, at the time of the movie, and of course you’re showing great respect for a woman there, but you’ve rarely been accused of showing a lot of respect for women. Your critics, Gloria Steinhem and others, have always been critical, and particularly the notorious cover in which a women is shown with a meat grinder. And that’s come back to haunt you over and over again. Is that a misunderstanding, or what exactly were you thinking when you put that on the cover of your magazine?
Flynt: That was pure satire, nothing else. It sure wasn’t put there to turn anybody on. And part of the reason why I did it was because of the relentless attacks by the feminists. You know, their only claim to fame is to urge a bunch of ugly women to march. And their dialogue hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. Now, I — don’t get me wrong, I’m for women’s rights, equal rights in the workplace, equal pay, nondiscrimination. But I just don’t feel that the feminists that are on the fringe speak for the average woman in America today.
Paulson: You are, perhaps, the nation’s foremost expert on that line, where something becomes obscene. For viewers at home — and you know, a lot of people miss this. Pornography is protected by the First Amendment. Pornography is erotic content for adults; it’s protected. Unless it crosses that line into something called obscenity, a legal definition that involves prurient interest and certainly involves community standards. You started Hustler in a community that had pretty conservative standards, Cincinnati, which is why, in ’77 you said was the first time you were sentenced to jail. How do you as a pornographer stay out of jail? How do you determine where that line is, what society will permit and what can lead to somebody being jailed?
Flynt: Because what most prosecutors, both federal and state, fail to realize is, they’re not the community. And the community is very contrary when it comes to having the government or the state to tell them what they can read or see in the privacy of their own home. My attorney tried a case down in St. Louis, Missouri, 12 jurors, all female, average age of 60, had some really rough stuff. After viewing all the films they come back in two hours and acquitted. And when they talked to these jurors later, they just said, “It’s not my cup of tea, but I don’t want to be telling my neighbor, you know, what he can view or see.” So I think that’s where the morality police sort of miss it at. You know, they can have all the fantasies they want to about prosecuting an obscenity case, but if they can’t get the consensus of 12 jurors, nothing’s gonna happen.
Paulson: Basically, we don’t know what community standards are anymore, do we? Because people can download in the privacy of their bedroom and…
Flynt: Yeah, well, see, another thing, when the Supreme Court made that decision in 1973, it was Miller vs. California. You didn’t have the internet then. So now the internet can be introduced as evidence in terms of defining community standards. So there’s all kinds of garbage on the internet. So it’s gonna be very, very tough, you know, to get obscenity convictions. I’m not saying they can’t, but it’s really gonna be tough in most communities.
Paulson: You wonder, at a time when there’s a lot more talk about indecency on television, maybe the pendulum is swinging back, and those prosecutions will be more aggressive.
Flynt: You bring that issue up. It frightens the hell out of me, because I think many of the civil rights and individual liberties that we gained in the last century with the very liberal Warren court have been placed in jeopardy with this new conservative Supreme Court we’ve got and this new conservative administration.
Paulson: You make a number of points in your new book about the Bush administration and about conservatives and, you know, the cover is you pictured in front of an American flag. And I know you don’t write a book without the intent of at least opening some minds, perhaps changing some minds, raising awareness. But, in some ways, if you’re in the Bush administration, aren’t you the opponent they want? I mean, you described yourself as a smut peddler. Are they really worried about being criticized by somebody who’s a pornographer and a smut peddler? Aren’t you almost their fantasy opponent? “See who’s against us? A pornographer, the publisher of Hustler, a man who’s run topless bars.”
Flynt: Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to discredit me than it would be somebody like Bob Woodward. I’m not denying that. But I have a base of support, and it’s not small. I feel I have to keep getting the message out there. I feel it’s my obligation to continue to get the message out there. It’s my duty, you know. Whatever the Republicans are doing, you know, they can’t do any more or any worse than what they’ve already done.
Paulson: You know, you’re often self-deprecating. When you ran for the governorship of California, you described yourself as a smut peddler who cares. You’ve run for president. And, you know, it’s an interesting life you lead in that, you, I assume you have all the material needs you could ever ask for and that you’ve got an empire; you’re a very successful businessman. And yet you jump into the public fray over and over again. I mean, for example, why did you run to be governor of California? Did you think there was a shot you could win?
Flynt: No, but once I seen the condition the state was in in terms of the deficit, I felt by announcing my candidacy, I would have an immediate platform to get out some suggestions that I wouldn’t normally be able to that might help balance the budget and alleviate some of the state’s financial problems. And the big idea I had was, the state should expand gaming regulations and allow the private casinos to have slot machines. They’re gonna pick up a couple billion dollars more in tax right there. Well, I used that platform quite effectively. I didn’t have any visions about going to Sacramento. You know, I just wanted the press to look at me about the issues I was talking about. Now, as a result of all this, we’ve got an initiative on the ballot that the voters will be voting on in November this year. And we might be able to get it.
Paulson: You used a similar strategy in another battle that’s outlined in your book and it has to do with getting access to the battlefields in Afghanistan. You went to court to make the case that a reporter for Hustler should be allowed to be present with the troops to chronicle that war. A logical extension, the First Amendment, if you’re a watchdog on government, you have to keep an eye on what government’s troops are doing and report on that war. And although that case has not yet been resolved, I have to believe that your litigation had some influence on the Defense Department’s decision to go ahead and allow embedding in Iraq.
Flynt: I think it did. Especially because after the trial judge in Washington made a ruling that we had a First Amendment right to cover the war. I believe the Pentagon got a little nervous about that. Even though he didn’t, you know, rule on our motion about access for, you know, total press. But it’s important to see why I got to that point, and it wasn’t just grandstanding. After the Vietnam War was over — see like, the press ended the Vietnam War. That’s what brought — Walter Cronkite and other distinguished journalists brought that war to an end. Then when Reagan invaded Grenada, a little island, the press didn’t have a clue. They were nowhere around. And then later on when Bush Sr. goes into Panama to get Noriega, the press was nowhere around. And then when the Gulf War started, basically the only coverage that anybody can remember of that Gulf War is Peter Arnett standing on the rooftop of the hotel where he was staying and broadcasting what he knew about the war. So I was very upset about this, as well as several other journalists, so when this happened in Afghanistan and they were just sort of picking and choosing and they were not — like when you would see those evening broadcasts where it would show pictures of these journalists positioned in different geographical areas, you got the impression that they were covering the war in Afghanistan. But they may have been hundreds of miles away from what they were actually reporting on. They weren’t getting to cover the war. So that’s when I filed the suit and said, you know, “This is ridiculous, because if Franklin Roosevelt would’ve conducted World War II in this manner, we wouldn’t even have a History Channel today.” And we don’t know. Eventually our case is gonna make it up to the Supreme Court probably. We may win, and we may not.
Paulson: You’ve fought First Amendment battles involving obscenity. You’ve fought a First Amendment battle, a pivotal one, involving parody. And more recently, as you have just described, you’ve fought this battle of access to battlefields and access to government information. You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about free speech and freedom of the press in this country. Just as a final question. What do you think it is that Americans are misunderstanding about the First Amendment? Do they really embrace and understand the principles of the First Amendment?
Flynt: No. We were born into a nation where all of our freedoms are taken for granted. We already had our civil liberties and our civil rights. So that’s why, on college campuses, there’s nothing but apathy out there. No one is concerned. They think it’s gonna be with them forever, and they don’t realize that you can lose these freedoms as easily as you can gain them. You know, when Hitler started, the top of his agenda was censorship, but he didn’t start burning the classics. He started with the so-called garbage that nobody wanted to read. And eventually it led to Voltaire and Shakespeare. And if we can’t realize that it’s possible for this to happen to us, we’re in really big trouble. Kids today, they know a little bit about history, and they know a little bit about freedom, but they don’t know how difficult it was.
Paulson: Thanks for joining us here today.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Larry Flynt, whose new book, Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth is out now. I’m Ken Paulson. Please join us again next week.
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