If you’re not going to offend someone, you don’t need the First Amendment.
— Larry Flynt
On March 6, 1978, Larry Flynt was shot outside a courthouse during an obscenity trail and it left him paralyzed.
What many don’t know is that Flynt’s shooter was sniper Joseph Paul Franklin, a serial killer who went on rampages through the south targeting black men and whites who had sex with blacks, at least in the first part of his career. Franklin once said that he didn’t bother with black women, because “they weren’t worth his time.” Obsessed with white supremacy and purity, he entertained fantasies of renting a small plane, loading it with poison, flying to Chicago, and systematically spraying the south side to kill as many “darkies” as possible.
Flynt bore Franklin’s wrath because Hustler published the first interracial spread.
Unlike Hefner or Guccione who work(ed) entirely within America’s race-class system, and whose content allowed their gentlemen readers to identify with a construct of the cultured white alpha male who has unlimited access to the prettiest white pussy money can buy, Larry broke new ground. The first inter-racial spread was consistent with Larry’s founding of Hustler: he understood himself as poor white trash, and he wanted to make porn for the working man. He saw Hustler as breaking free from a “bullshit” class system. No airbrushing. No faux arts and culture articles. Abominable low-brow humor. He has always seen himself as an iconoclast, and takes deliberate shots at the status quo.
Hustler deserves its reputation — but there’s an interesting caveat, that I respect even if it comes from a ‘let’s shock and sell’ business model. I come from a poor white trash background, and I empathize with Larry’s ‘fuck you’ to the status quo and its wardrobe of numbing hypocrisies. In his mixed race spread, Larry gave his African American models humanity. Blacks and whites were equal in this photo feature. The original spread, if you can still find it, has none of the characteristic Hustler denigration, potty humor, go for the lowest common denominator and create controversy tenor. Instead, Larry portrayed his African American models equal to the Caucasian models, and there’s a deliberately executed, beautiful charm to these photos, a non-exploitive eroticism, if one isn’t offended by seeing naked men and women embrace, couple, exchange pleasure.
Playboy would not have its first black centerfold until 1990, because, apparently, black women “weren’t worth their time.” But here’s Larry, in the late 1970’s having the audacity to show one-on-one interracial couplings, without a smidgen of racist narrative, other than simply exploiting sex for its own sake.
And he took a bullet for it.
The financial cabal behind the 1978 obscenity charges again rose to the challenge when Larry famously satirized so-called Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell. (If interested, google ‘Charles Keating savings and loan’ for more on this righteous lot.) Supported by the financial cabal, Falwell sued Larry citing emotional distress over a cartoon that depicted Falwell’s first sexual encounter being with his mother in an outhouse.
Stunningly bad and vintage Flynt “humor.”
Eventually, the case made it’s way to the Supreme Court. Flynt won. The decision in favor of Flynt was unanimous, and a great milestone in First Amendment decisions. If you read SCOTUS decisions, you glean subtitles. In Texas v. Johnson, for example, the case which protects flag burning, there’s near acrimony in the dissent and final response, a 5-4 decision, with conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist leading the dissent.
But in Hustler v. Falwell, there’s no such tension. Rehnquist wrote and delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court. Near its conclusion, the decision quotes the FCC v. Pacifica (1978):
[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection. For it is a central tenet of the First Amendment that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas.
Larry Flynt, white trash smut monger who gets zero respect from the feminists, the morality police, the article reading, status conscious white men who fancy themselves lovers of women and better than Hustler’s depravity, takes on the status quo, gets his case heard before the SCOTUS, and wins a unanimous decision written by the court’s conservative Chief Justice, protecting and ensuring the rights of all of the aforementioned holier than Flynts.
As “poor white trash” Flynt recognizes the inherent dehumanization and hypocrisy of the class system (“I exploit women like McDonald’s exploits hamburgers”), he doesn’t bury this truth, and he takes keen shots at it while being a knowing participant in it. He makes no apologies — rather, he makes iconoclastic inroads.
The depravity isn’t in the porn, the depravity is an economic system whose entire structure relies on exploitation. Being the class conscious outsider, of all the porn peddlers, Larry is the only one who seems to recognize the depth and breadth of the system’s game.
You don’t have to like what he does. I respect that his smut mongering is executed with greater cognizance than those who are socialized into the system, but without a clue as to its economic underpinnings. I therefore return to the laborious background I offered in Part I — as a pretenseless smut peddler, Larry sees the system more clearly than the educated elite who ignore women’s studies in deference to his-story, female Harvard undergraduates who unwittingly fail to defend powerless women, or any of the well educated, highly regarded social leaders who cathartically punish (or worse, underpay) their sex workers because they haven’t a clue as to how to deal with their closeted demons.
Larry’s First Amendment win further guaranteed those of us concerned with social inequality and the system’s inclusive evolution the right to use image and language in the most colorful ways that our imaginations can bring to bear on discourse, impolitely exposing our cultural hypocrisies one insult at a time.