The Supreme Court handed 'Hustler''s Larry Flynt a free-speech victory 13 years ago

By Josh Wolk
Updated March 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

In November 1983, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt ran a Campari liqueur ad parody that made the magazine’s crotch shots look refined, with Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell rhapsodizing about committing incest in an outhouse with his mother. After Falwell sued, Flynt was found guilty in two courts of ”intentional infliction of emotional distress” and fined $200,000 in damages.

But on Feb. 24, 1988, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment — declaring that finding non-libelous speech offensive is no reason to suppress it — and made Flynt an unlikely free-speech champion. While Falwell claims he’s never seen all of 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (starring Woody Harrelson), which dramatizes that legal battle, the two moral opponents are now unlikely friends, and here recall their First Amendment feud.

Falwell: If he’d left my mother [who died in 1977] out of it, he’d never have heard from me … If I could have gotten to him, we wouldn’t have had a trial — I’d have just whipped him and it would be all over.

Flynt: That a–hole preached against me for 15 years. Frankly, I didn’t care [if the ad made him mad].

Falwell: After we won twice, I began to think maybe we can get some jurists who are bright enough to draw a line without endangering the mainstream media, free speech, and free press.

Flynt: All the [Supreme Court] justices were looking down at us. I thought, ”Man, I’m a dead duck. This is the pornographer versus the preacher … ” The networks usually have reporters in front of the Supreme Court building when important decisions come down, analyzing them. But we got very little of that … This changed the face of journalism, and I’m disappointed that we didn’t get more credit.

Falwell: I don’t think Larry saved the First Amendment. The First Amendment saved him.

Flynt: When we did Larry King Live together [on Jan. 10, 1997], I hadn’t seen him in years. He said, ”Maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet.” This somewhat disarmed me. He spent the whole hour sucking up to me. If I attacked him, I’d look like the bad guy.

Falwell: Since then, we’ve done a number of debates. [At a 1998 joint appearance in Boca Raton, Fla., Flynt apologized for the ad.] Whenever I go to California, we’ll have lunch or I’ll spend the afternoon at his office. I tell him, tongue in cheek, that my goal is to lead him to Christ, get him to close down this cesspool called Hustler, and then join my church staff. Well, I don’t think he’s ready to sign a contract yet.

[BOX]

Time Capsule — February 24, 1988

At the movies, six weeks before striking gold at the Oscars, Michael Douglas gets greedy in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. In music, Rick Astley’s love ditty ”Never Gonna Give You Up” holds its top 10 spot on the Billboard singles chart. In bookstores, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2061: Odyssey Three is a New York Times best-seller. And in the news, warning that the AIDS crisis calls for ”major changes” throughout the health care system, Adm. James Watkins, the chairman of President Reagan’s AIDS commission, calls for $2 billion per year to combat the virus.

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