Free Speech is Never Free

--“Oh, my God!” Larry Flynt, the self-proclaimed King of Smut, yelled, wagging a finger at the prosecutor, Simon Leis. “I’m being tried by a storm trooper!”

Flynt, known for his wild and belligerent antics, had just crossed another unforgivable line. In the fall of 1976, just weeks before he was to go on trial again in Cincinnati on obscenity charges, 400,000 Hamilton County, Oh. residents found an “important message” from Mr. Flynt in their mailboxes.

It was a 12-page anti-war pamphlet entitled “What is Obscene”. Inside, the men and women of Hamilton County discovered full-color photos of gory war scenes including, but not limited to, decapitated soldiers.

A couple of weeks later, when Flynt walked in and saw prosecutor Simon Leis, with his close-cropped hair and heavy boots, he let loose his first of many outbursts during the trial, calling the prosecutor a stormtrooper.

One of Flynt’s attorneys, Herald Fahringer, thought it fit to forewarn Judge William Morrissey about his client. “He told me Larry Flynt is strong-willed,” Judge Morrissey told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “And sometimes he’ll just go off like Vesuvius.”

Sure enough, his reputation preceded him. “He was a bad boy during the Hustler case,” the judge said. “He shocked people. Jaws were dropping.”

When Larry Flynt signed my paychecks

In last Saturday’s missive, I mentioned that my first job out of high school was… let’s say… less than conventional. (In fact, thinking about it, I haven’t ever had a “conventional” job by conventional standards.)

I worked for Larry Flynt (indirectly) at his Hustler store in my hometown of Monroe, Oh. When I walked in for my interview the first thing I noticed was a huge photo on the wall of him in his famous $17,000 wheelchair giving a gold-ringed middle finger to the camera. The photo was dedicated to the city of Cincinnati, where he opened his first store on Sixth St. and they tried to lock him up for twenty-plus years on obscenity charges — more than once.

Flynt was never one to just toe the line. Instead, he just rolled right over it. His Monroe store, as just one little-known example, has a big sign you can see from I-75. The story goes that this sign violates the city’s code for how high a sign can be. But Flynt wanted people to be able to see it from I-75. If he followed the dictates, the sign would’ve been hidden from view.

So he didn’t.

Rather than acquiesce, he decided to just  do it anyway — and pay the fine every month. It was a shrewd move. Truckers and curious passersby would see the sign and stop. The store, set in a smallish town, offered a level of anonymity and convenience the stores in the cities (and those online, too) didn’t.

The small Monroe store became one of the most successful Hustler stores in the country. It often pulled in more money than even the big city stores in New York and Los Angeles.

Flynt’s brash approach is the reason for both his success and his troubles. The famous Falwell case started because he published a tasteless parody interview where “Falwell” opens up about losing his virginity to his mother while drunk in an outhouse. Falwell didn’t take kindly to this.

In 2007, after Falwell died, Flynt told the Los Angeles Times that, despite their differences, he and Falwell later became friends. “I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.”

Working at Hustler drove me to learn everything I could about this wildly controversial figure whose signature donned my paychecks. I met his brother, Jimmy, and later met Jimmy’s son by chance in downtown Cincinnati, where he hired me to do some odd jobs for the Cincinnati store.

During those early years, although I didn’t agree with him on a lot of things, I discovered, and came to appreciate, his uncompromising views on the freedom of speech. Hate him or love him, he’s right about that one thing — free speech isn’t free.

Can speech be violence?

Today, we’re facing down a whole new set of issues which threaten to redefine what “free speech” truly means.

Twenty-year-old Michelle Carter, for example, was just recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide.

Any reasonable person would agree her behavior was absolutely disgusting. But should she be protected by the First Amendment? Can text messages be lethal? Judge Moniz seems to think so. And thus speech hath become violence.

Similar in scope, Evergreen professor Brett Weinstein objected to a “White Day of Absence” where white students and faculty were asked to leave campus. Weinstein, an Evergreen professor, was branded by student “activists” as a racist, white supremacist and secret comrade of the Alt-Right.

This new breed of moral crusaders, the so-called Social Justice Warriors, believe speech can be free so long as it doesn’t offend. And guided by no principles whatsoever, with a muddled sense of moral relativism guiding their “thinking,” they’re quick to eat their own.

This idea that offensive or dangerous speech isn’t free speech is precisely what Flynt fought against — and was almost killed for. But, despite being paralyzed, he didn’t once let up or even tone it down to protect himself. And still hasn’t.

“Free speech is not free,” he said during a talk he gave at Syracuse University’s Tully Center For Free Speech. The occasion was a 25th anniversary of his landmark 1976-’77 case.

“Everyone feels that they understand free speech,” he went on, “but they have their own version of the First Amendment. It is not freedom for the thought you love but freedom for the thought you hate most.”

So goes the famous line from the movie Larry Flynt vs. the People, which, in Flynt’s off-kilter elegance, sums up why his uncompromising stance on free speech is worthy of respect:

“If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me it will protect all of you.”

When it fails to protect the scumbags, though, that’s when we’re all in trouble.

[Ed. note: Free speech is worth fighting for. Without it, all other freedoms fall by the wayside. To help you fight on the right side of history, Nick Gillespie has put together a video called 5 Clichés Used to Attack Free Speech” based on an excellent op-ed in the New York Times by former federal prosecutor Ken White. Both are worth the time.]

Until tomorrow,

Chris Campbell
Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today

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