Larry Flynt primed to battle obscenity charges in Cincinnati
One in a series of interviews with principals involved in First Amendment-related U.S. Supreme Court cases (see “SCT interview” keyword below).
Porn magnate and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt faces obscenity charges in the same locale where a judge and jury sentenced him to 25 years in prison more than 20 years ago — Cincinnati.
However, Flynt says he feels confident he will prevail this time around. “Believe me, the prosecution will have its hands full,” he said in an interview with First Amendment Center Online. “This time around I expect to get a different jury, a less conservative jury. Community values have changed over the last 20 years.”
But Flynt wants to do far more than prevail in the courtroom; he wants to force a national discussion on how government deals with sexual expression.
“Most of all, what I am hoping for is that my trial will open up a national dialogue on the question of obscenity, which this country has not had in over 20 years and which the country desperately needs,” he said.
Though many view him only as a purveyor of porn, Flynt says he cares passionately about the Constitution and particularly the First Amendment. “I first became involved with the First Amendment when I was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conveying sexual expression.”
Though he served only six days of that sentence before an appeals court threw out the conviction, Flynt says he realized the danger of obscenity laws. “I learned the hard way that the First Amendment could and should not ever be taken for granted.”
Hustler‘s publisher displays sharp acumen on U.S. Supreme Court obscenity case law, particularly the 1973 decision, Miller v. California, in which the court established “basic guidelines” for juries to determine obscenity by “contemporary community standards.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court really got it wrong in Miller v. California,” Flynt says. “They need to revisit the obscenity issue. That was a bad decision that has caused publishers and producers to second-guess the reading and viewing habits of people in numerous communities.”
Flynt did not have to second-guess what materials people in Cincinnati could view and read. When visiting the city for the premier of the Oscar-winning movie, “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” he noticed that Hustler was not being sold.
“It was obvious to me the retailers were afraid to carry the magazine,” he says. “The prosecutors had engaged in a system of prior restraint by basically intimidating retailers, and I just decided to do something about it. I decided that if I’m going to be out front on First Amendment issues, what better place to fight the battle than in Cincinnati?”
Last August Flynt opened an adult novelty store, Hustler Books, Magazines and Gifts, in downtown Cincinnati. Local officials responded in what Flynt calls a predictable fashion and, in April, obtained a 15-count indictment against Flynt and his brother, Jimmy, on several charges including “pandering obscenity” and “disseminating matter harmful to juveniles.”
Three of the counts involve the alleged sale or rental of adult videos to a 14-year-old. Flynt dismisses these charges as “a government-inspired sting operation that won’t float with a jury.
“It has always been a corporate policy of mine never to sell to minors and to always check ID’s. The individual in question had his uncle’s ID and that’s how he was able to obtain the materials,” he says.
Flynt also says that anti-pornography groups and others often use children when bashing pornography. “That is a totally separate issue. If you target children, you are violating the rights of someone who is not old enough to make all their own decisions and you should be punished in certain instances.
“But what the Religious Right and others have done is to use the protection-of- minors rationale to censor the reading tastes of adults. You cannot — and the U.S. Supreme Court has said this many times — reduce the adult population to reading that which is only fit for children,” he says.
Even the charges involving the juvenile don’t intimidate Flynt. “I know one thing: I am much more prepared than I was 21 years ago,” he says. “I have the finest legal team in the country. I wouldn’t trade my lawyers for any in the country.”
Flynt’s ‘dream team’ includes Alan Isaacman, who successfully argued for Flynt in Hustler v. Falwell before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987; Paul Cambria, a Buffalo attorney who has tried more than 100 obscenity trials; and Ohio-based Louis Sirkin, who, among other First Amendment triumphs, successfully defended an arts museum on obscenity charges for showcasing works of controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
Flynt says the public may be able to view his trial. “Court TV says they want to cover my trial gavel-to-gavel. That means the mainstream media will be interested.”
Flynt says he sees the media as a key in his case and in bringing about a national discussion of obscenity. “When I was tried in 1977, there was no CNN, MSNBC, CNBC or Court TV. Now these networks cover legal matters.”
According to Flynt, greater media coverage of legal cases and his movie have better informed the public about First Amendment rights.
“The local adult video store is the poor man’s art museum,” Flynt says. “The obscenity laws being passed around the country really smack of Prohibition and it’s not going to work. People don’t want Big Brother in their bedrooms. One of the most basic and cherished rights in this country is the right to be let alone.”
Flynt’s arraignment has now been scheduled for June 1. He estimates that his trial will begin in late summer or early fall.
“I expect to prevail and will pull out all the stops in defending the First Amendment. But you never know what will happen. I’ll tell you one thing for sure, though — I’ve never compromised and I don’t intend to compromise now.”