Larry Flynt Made the World Freer for Everybody by Pushing Boundaries
America lost a free speech champion last week with the death of Larry Flynt at the age of 78. The publisher of Hustler magazine was one of those rare people who actually took a bullet for his principles. In an age when too many people believe speech is worthy of protection only if they approve of its content, he was a reminder that the greatest champions of liberty are often confrontational outliers who are willing to offend and to push back boundaries.
Flynt may be best known for the case of Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell (1988). That case turned on a 1983 ad parody which lampooned Campari advertisements featuring celebrities’ “first time” with the drink by portraying prominent socially conservative preacher Jerry Falwell’s “first time” with his mother in an outhouse. While the piece was clearly labeled as a parody, Falwell filed suit for invasion of privacy, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The courts initially rejected the first two claims but ruled in Falwell’s favor on the emotional distress claim and awarded him damages. Because of uncertainty over First Amendment protection for speech that allegedly causes emotional distress, the case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the court found that public figures such as Jerry Falwell must meet an extremely high standard before they can collect damages from people who mock them.
For a unanimous court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote:
“We conclude that public figures and public officials may not recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of publications such as the one here at issue without showing, in addition, that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with “actual malice,” i.e., with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true.”
“The Court effectively shut off an effort to make it easier for public figures to muzzle criticism and satire,” Stuart Taylor, Jr. summarized for The New York Times after the case was decided.
A decade after the case, Flynt and Falwell became, improbably, friends and colleagues, touring the country to publicly discuss issues on which they disagreed.
“We went to colleges, debating moral issues and 1st Amendment issues – what’s ‘proper,’ what’s not and why,” Flynt told the Los Angeles Times after Falwell’s deat
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