The Pervert Who Changed America: How Larry Flynt Fought the Law and Won
Larry Flynt was a hardcore porn pioneer, a born-again Christian, an antagonist of the women's movement, and a First Amendment crusader. What will he leave behind?
Photos by Adam Ianniello unless otherwise noted
Larry Flynt spends his days sitting in a gold wheelchair on the top floor of a building that's shaped like a big gold dildo. His office is covered in money-green carpet sectioned into squares by gold lines. On one side sits a golden life-size statue of Julius Caesar. On the opposite wall, there's an end table with green marbling and gold trim on top of which sits a pair of gold statuettes that from a distance resembled Oscars but up close reveal themselves as busts of nude female torsos. On the surface of Flynt's desk, which is accented with even more gold trim, there are two decorative gold pens, a gold-framed photo of him and Bill Clinton, a bowl of gold paperclips, and a gold stand that holds a 9/11 "Deception Dollar."
A few feet away from a gold chandelier that's so big you have to duck in order to walk under it, Flynt sits, facing the window. As he looks down on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, a pair of large men sporting matching suits and identical haircuts descend upon him. One of them combs Flynt's thinning gold hair, while the other stands behind him, adjusting the collar of his suit, which has a gold lapel pin in the shape of a hand clutching a single diamond. There are two gold rings on his left hand, and one gold ring on his right pinky. He wears a gold, diamond-studded watch on one wrist, and a gold, diamond-studded bracelet on the other. His face, once boyish and chubby, is now gaunt, and vestigial skin billows around his neck like an Elizabethan collar.
The man behind Flynt lifts him up by his armpits, suspending him 18 inches or so above the seat so that his blood can flow more easily down into his lower body. Flynt closes his eyes, and his face goes blank, as if he has momentarily receded into himself. Almost reflexively, I divert my gaze to a nearby table, where I find a miniature sculpture of two people fucking doggy style. This is not a subtle office, but then again Flynt—once the most provocative, most reviled pornographer in America, now an old man in the twilight of life—was never a subtle guy.
By its late-70s peak, Flynt's flagship publication Hustler reached 3 million sweaty palms per month, transgressing every boundary under the sun and earning the scorn of both the religious right and the feminist left. In his quest to piss off the entire world and make himself rich in the process, Flynt developed a bull-headed insistence upon contesting every single lawsuit and obscenity charge that came his way, transforming him into an unlikely canary in the coal mine of First Amendment law.
In 1978, Flynt was shot in the gut by the white supremacist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin for running a photo spread depicting interracial sex in the December 1975 issue of Hustler. Franklin's bullet caused such severe damage to a cluster of nerves near the base of Flynt's spine that he never walked again. He spent years combating the excruciating pain stemming from his shooting by injecting pharmaceutical opiates, writing in his 1996 memoir An Unseemly Man that he has suffered multiple drug overdoses and twice been declared legally dead. In 1984, he spent six months in prison on a contempt of court charge, where his already bum legs were mysteriously broken, and he developed bedsores so severe he eventually had to be hospitalized.
Despite this, Flynt, now 74, has outlived his rivals and survived to watch the cultural epoch he was a part of fade into history. His list of enemies, once Nixonian in scope, has dwindled as his old sparring partners have either died or simply given up. But as he scrapped, sued, and screamed in pursuit of a world in which pornography and outrageous language are accepted as facts of life, Flynt helped create precedents that are still with us. He won. Even if it doesn't look like it.
Flynt's attachés wheel him over to his desk, where my photographer asks him to smile. He does not. "I've got a lot of work to do," he says to Evan Roosevelt, a large guy in his early 30s who serves as VP of marketing for Hustler's various brands. Flynt speaks slowly, often wheezing between sentences and gurgling as he struggles to enunciate his words.
Smile or no, the photographer begins snapping away. As if in protest, the left half of Flynt's face slackens, drifting downward to join the skin that has collected at the base of his neck. Flynt gradually tilts his head back, and his mouth falls all the way open, as if he's trying to parody the way old people look when they fall asleep in front of the TV.
As a last-ditch effort, someone calls in Flynt's fifth wife, Liz—his former nurse who now works down the hall as a Larry Flynt Publications executive—in the hopes that she will get a rise out of her husband. "Say money!" she says cheerfully, using her index fingers to widen her own mouth into a smile as if she's coaching a third-grader on picture day.
Flynt closes his eyes and retreats into himself again.
Larry Flynt was born in 1942 in a literal log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky. His memoir describes an early life filled with sexual trauma and strangeness. When he was seven, a girl six years his senior fondled his penis as his cousin watched. Two years later, he caught one of his grandmother's chickens, penetrated it, and then killed it in a panic. At 15, he ran away from home only to return after an armed man claiming to be a police officer picked him up on the side of the road, ordered him to undo his pants, and performed oral sex on the terrified teen. A few weeks later, he used a forged birth certificate to enlist in the Army and, during basic training, lost his virginity (what was left of it, at least) with a prostitute who was in her 40s.
After being discharged from the Army due to personnel cutbacks, Flynt, still just 16, joined the Navy. While awaiting deployment, he married a woman he met in a bar in order to have sex with her, only to divorce her when the sex was bad. At 19, he married his girlfriend Peggy, who at the time was pregnant with another man's child. When Flynt left the service for good, the couple settled in Dayton, Ohio, and had a kid. The marriage, which had seemed doomed ever since Flynt had gotten institutionalized for firing a pistol at Peggy's mother, dissolved completely when Flynt resolved a marital argument by spitting in his wife's face.
Newly single and out of the service, Flynt became an entrepreneur, operating some dive bars and a vending-machine business before finding success with a chain of go-go bars he named the Hustler Club. It was while interviewing women to dance at his clubs that he met and fell in love with Althea Leasure, a teenage runaway who quickly became an integral part of Flynt's business enterprises. She took over the management of the Hustler Clubs as Flynt worked to convert its newsletter, which highlighted the chain's new dancers, into a national publication positioned as a blue-collar alternative to Playboy and Penthouse. The magazine went from an also-ran jerk-off magazine into a bona fide sensation in the wake of its August 1975 issue, in which Flynt published paparazzi photos of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the nude. The issue flew off newsstands—Flynt wrote that he sold a million copies "in a matter of days," including one bought by the governor of Ohio—and just like that, Flynt's fame and fortune were made.
Before Hustler, the two primary sources of one-handed literature in America were Playboy and Penthouse (which both turned down the Jackie O photos before Flynt bought them). These targeted readers who Playboy's Hugh Hefner once described as "urbane fellows" who enjoyed "good food, drink, proper dress, and the pleasure of female company." They listened to jazz and read Nabokov, and when they weren't having sex with their totally real girlfriends, they enjoyed considering artful photographs of bare-breasted women, genitalia obscured and flaws airbrushed out.
Flynt did not try to sell porn to this rarified (and maybe imaginary) audience. He sold porn to regular blue-collar men, horny dudes who wanted to jerk off and did not give a fuck about art—dudes like him, basically.
"Larry Flynt was king of the hillbillies," says Robert Ward, a writer and former Miami Vice showrunner who cut his teeth as a prominent figure in the 70s-era New Journalism movement. He spent two weeks with Flynt in 1976 for a profile that ran in New Times. Ward found the flamboyant pornographer fascinating and repulsive in equal measure. Flynt had just risen from the forgotten underbelly of the American underclass to fabulous wealth and carried himself like an unconscious parody of Hugh Hefner's libertine intellectual persona. He wore a gold pendant in the shape of a vagina around his neck, flew around in a pink jet that once belonged to Elvis, talked openly of massive orgies, and lived in a mansion with a replica of his childhood log cabin in the basement—complete with a statue commemorating the time he fucked that chicken.
Though Ward found Flynt to be an unrepentant hedonist and cynical businessman, the budding mogul was also charming and whip-smart, and his more unsavory tendencies were tempered by a whiff of naiveté. By 1976, he'd recruited Althea to help him oversee the magazine's production, and the pair seemed in over their heads. In one of their conversations, Ward recalls, Flynt, desperate to find better writers for his magazine, went to the journalist for advice. He asked Ward to tell him the best writer he could think of. "James Joyce," Ward responded. Flynt then asked how to get in touch with the famed author, not realizing he'd died in 1941.
"He spoke to a segment of men who felt disempowered by women standing up and saying, I'm not gonna take it anymore."
Carolyn Bronstein is a media studies professor at DePaul University whose 2011 book Battling Pornography recounted the anti-pornography efforts of the women's movement during the 70s and 80s. Much like Hefner of Playboy and Bob Guccione of Penthouse, she tells me, "Larry Flynt had his finger on the pulse of the culture and realized there was money to be made by selling sex." But unlike his competitors, Flynt took a more reactionary stance toward progress and the sexual revolution. Bronstein says, "He spoke to a segment of men who felt disempowered by women standing up and saying, I'm not gonna take it anymore. He saw that anger; he knew he could feed it and make money off of it."
Hustler was crass where Playboy was classy, grotesque instead of tasteful, joyful and depraved. Sex was dirty, and Flynt's magazine reflected that filth. "Nothing was too low for him to make fun of or sexualize," Bronstein says.
Many of Hustler's editorial cartoons trafficked in obvious—and obviously offensive—racial stereotypes, while others featured a character called Chester the Molester (which was drawn by a man who was later accused of molesting his own daughter). "We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat" declared a quote from Flynt on its June 1978 cover—a quote paired with a drawing of a naked woman being stuffed through a meat grinder. The magazine once ran an interview with Charles Bukowski in which the author defended the psychological makeup of pedophiles and rapists, then delved into the granularities of fucking a high-heeled shoe. One of its recurring columns was dedicated to the character assassination of politicians, anti-porn activists, and anyone else Flynt felt had acted hypocritical. The column was called Asshole of the Month, and its goal, says its longtime author and former Hustler editor Allan MacDonell, "was to make the subject cry."
David Gordon worked as an editor at Hustler in the mid 90s; his debut novel, The Serialist, was in part inspired by letters he received from convicts back then. "There was this sense of not really being answerable to anybody because we'd already gone too far," says Gordon of his experience. "In a way, I felt like I was onboard a pirate ship, like I was in this swashbuckling, libertarian outlaw crew."
But not everyone felt that Hustler was a liberating force. The women's movement in particular balked at the magazine, which contained extreme content that often made women feel cut out of the cultural shifts that had made porn part of the mainstream.
"I think if you pull back the lens a bit, not everybody is comfortable with [pornography]. Many feminists then and now don't consider it an appropriate way to represent women—especially if men are at the helm of the operation," says Carol Queen, a writer and activist who holds a doctorate in sexology and co-founded the San Francisco-based Center for Sex and Culture. "The fact that so many women found Hustler to be oppressive is what it is, and it doesn't matter whether the intent was to oppress."
In its own way, though, Hustler's content shed light on what was then the sexual fringe. Its early issues depicted erect penises, interracial sex (neither of which Playboy and Penthouse had touched), bondage, MMF threesomes, a nude pregnant woman, and a pre-operative trans woman, which the academic Laura Kipnis referred to in her essay "Disgust and Desire: Hustler Magazine" as "a true moment of frisson for your typical heterosexual male."
And even if he showcased non-traditional sexualities with all the subtlety of a carnival barker, the fact that Flynt was presenting them at all is significant, says Queen. "There are multiple ways to slice it," she says. "Yes, the framing was problematic, but at the same time, it increased visibility and gave people who hadn't figured out this piece of their identity a feeling of what might be possible."
In a weird way, Queen says, even Hustler's offensive and at times alienating imagery had progressive, though completely unintentional, effect. "That's part of the gift of Larry Flynt," she says. "He gave us a discussion that helped us understand how problematic sex could be for some people."
Meanwhile, Flynt's life continued on its bizarre, winding course. In 1977, he befriended President Jimmy Carter's sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, who converted him to evangelical Christianity while the pair was sharing a ride on Flynt's jet. Though religion didn't take, he made overtures at distancing himself from the day-to-day filth of Hustler. He turned his eye toward more respectable publishing, buying up a few alternative newspapers. He also hired Paul Krassner—the former editor of the underground satirical newspaper the Realist, who'd also put in time with Ken Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters and co-founded the Yippies—to head up Hustler's editorial direction.
Flynt also set about clearing his conscience. In an unreleased excerpt from her memoir My Life on the Road provided to VICE by her publisher, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and longtime Flynt antagonist (who is now a host on VICELAND) recounted that following his conversion Flynt reached out to her through the Carters, asking her to formally forgive Flynt on behalf of all women. "If I offer[ed] Flynt absolution," Steinem wrote, "he [would] give $1 million toward the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment," the proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. But Flynt's well-known penchant for publicity stunts made Steinem suspicious, and she declined the indecent proposal.
As the 70s bled into the 80s, Flynt was repeatedly sued for obscenity, shot and paralyzed by Franklin, and increasingly erratic thanks to his undiagnosed bipolar disorder. While a national debate over the potential dangers of pornography whirled around him, Flynt became reclusive, surrounding himself with armed guards and rarely leaving his mansion near Hustler's new Beverly Hills headquarters.
Though Flynt had always shown an interest in free speech due to his enmity toward anyone who dared tell him to shut up, it's during these years that he began surrounding himself with icons from the previous era of radical protest. He palled around with comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, tripped acid with Timothy Leary, and commissioned Terry Southern to write a movie about Jim Morrison. Of all his unlikely relationships, he says, "Probably my two best friends were Gore Vidal and Madalyn Murray O'Hair of American Atheists... I was always like a sponge when I was around them, just absorbing everything I possibly could."
"He was pulling these people in for different kind of inspiration and trying to really stir things up," says former Hustler executive editor Allan MacDonell, who started with the magazine in the spring of 1983, just as Flynt came into his own as a self-styled dissident. In the months after MacDonell signed onto the mag, Flynt leaked a videotape of struggling auto magnate Bob DeLorean being arrested by the FBI as part of a cocaine sting, sued the government for press access to the Grenada conflict, and ran for president as a Republican (partially as a way to circumvent obscenity laws, and partially on the advice of Dennis Hopper, who'd been laying low in Flynt's Bel Air mansion after being institutionalized for trying to blow himself up with dynamite).
Perhaps most notoriously, Flynt attempted to represent himself in front of the Supreme Court, only to be forcibly removed from the chambers for calling the justices "Eight assholes and a token cunt" when his request was denied. He then took off his dress shirt to reveal a T-shirt that said, "FUCK THIS COURT" and was later taken to the police station in his own limo, which defiantly flew a pair of American flags.
"When that happened," MacDonell recalls, "I was just like, What the fuck, this is the guy I'm working for?"
Shortly after his stunt in front of the Supreme Court, Flynt was called to testify about the DeLorean leak. He showed up to the hearing with an army helmet on his head, a purple heart medal pinned to his chest, and a diaper made out of the American flag pinned to his ass. He was held in contempt of court; during his arraignment, he told the judge, "Take my ass to jail, cocksucker." At a follow-up hearing, he told another judge, "Fuck you."
"It was kind of an amazing time to be at Hustler," says MacDonell. "Larry wasn't necessarily talking truth to power, but he was talking rage to power."
Flynt's pattern was to print something that broke new ground in the field of bad taste, getting sued, then fighting that lawsuit until he either exhausted his options or won, thereby setting some sort of legal precedent. He was an explorer on the outer edges of the First Amendment, testing just how far free speech protections could be stretched.
A Hustler article about autoerotic asphyxiation yielded a suit that in turn helped establish that publishers can't be held liable if readers harm themselves or others based on something they read in a piece of journalism (Herceg v. Hustler Magazine, 1987). Flynt's personal vendetta against fellow pornographer Bob Guccione sowed the seeds for a ruling in Flynt's favor that furthered the standards by which a public figure can be deemed "libel-proof" (Guccione v. Hustler Magazine, 1986). The United States Postal Service once sued Hustler because Flynt wouldn't stop sending copies of his jerk-off magazine to members of Congress—he won that case, too, in the process reinforcing the idea that congressional offices cannot refuse mail from constituents, a ruling that Flynt takes full advantage of to this day (United States Postal Service v. Hustler Magazine, 1986). Jokes former Hustler staffer David Gordon, "[At a certain point], you knew if you took him on you were basically going to the Supreme Court."
True to form, it was an errant kiss-off to the powers that be that spurred the years-long court battle that cemented Flynt's place in legal history. In Hustler's November 1983 issue, Flynt ran a parody of a popular series of ads for Campari liqueur that consisted of a fake interview with the televangelist Jerry Falwell in which the conservative preacher talked about losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. Given that the previous month's cover had featured a nude woman spray-painting "George Bush Has AIDS" on a brick wall, the Falwell parody was by no means the most tasteless thing to appear in the magazine that year. In all likelihood, the issue would have come and gone without anyone noticing—except for the fact that Falwell himself caught wind of it.
"He was selling religion, and I was selling porn. We were both good at what we did, and we were both making money."
–Larry Flynt on Jerry Falwell
"Falwell was pissed. He claimed he read the ad and collapsed," says MacDonnell. Within weeks of the fake interview's publication, he sued Flynt for $45 million, and then helped cover his legal bills by sending the ad to his congregation asking for donations.
"He was a charlatan," Flynt says with a distinct note of admiration when I bring Falwell up. "He was selling religion, and I was selling porn. We were both good at what we did, and we were both making money."
Falwell claimed that Flynt and Hustler had committed libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A judge threw out the invasion of privacy claim before the case even began, and a jury eventually ruled that Hustler had only committed intentional infliction of emotional distress. By the trial's conclusion in late 1984, Falwell's requested $45 million in damages were whittled down to a much more manageable $150,000, which for the wealthy Flynt was tantamount to pocket change.
Flynt refused to pay up, however, appealing on the grounds that parody and satire were protected speech under the First Amendment. After a pair of higher courts shooed Flynt away in 1986, he appealed a third time, asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. The justices agreed, and in 1987—four years after Flynt had gotten kicked out of the court's chambers for screaming obscenities—he found himself yet again appearing in front of the highest court in the country, this time wearing a suit.
When I ask Flynt about that day, he sucks on his teeth. "I remember sitting in the gallery of the Supreme Court. It was Falwell and his family on one side lookin' like a Norman Rockwell painting. I figured, 'I'm going down for the count. They're not gonna rule in the pornographer's favor.'"
And yet, the pornographer won in a unanimous decision.
"The Supreme Court's opinion in Hustler was a triumphant celebration of freedom of speech," wrote the legal scholar Rodney Smolla shortly after the decision, making note of its "profound First Amendment significance." The decision was a widening of a previous ruling, 1964's New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which had established that a publisher couldn't be sued for libel unless they'd shown "actual malice"—which the court defined as "knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth"—when printing false information.
"[The Falwell case] has continual significance for two reasons," says William B. Turner, who teaches First Amendment courses at UC Berkeley and whose book Figures of Speech devotes a chapter to Flynt. "One, it provides protection for satire and [parody].... Two, it expands the Sullivan rule to non-libel cases where a public figure is complaining about humiliation caused by an article's publication."
Even after the Sullivan ruling, public figures such as celebrities and politicians could still control what was printed about them, to a degree, through the possibility of filing suit against a publisher on the grounds of "intentional infliction of emotional distress." In this case, Falwell was suing Hustler for intentional infliction of emotional distress on the grounds that the magazine knew he wasn't an incestuous drunk but printed a deliberate lie in order to hurt his feelings. Explains Turner, "Satire is a deliberate lie," but it's also something he calls "rhetorical hyperbole—a statement no one would believe to be factual." He concludes, "The fact that something is malicious character assassination doesn't mean it's not protected by the First Amendment." For that protection, we have the precedent set by Flynt to thank.
These days, Hustler is a shadow of its former notorious self. You can find traces of its penchant for bomb-throwing in a great many publications of the online era—especially Gawker, which went down in a blaze of lawsuits after pissing a lot of people off and posting a snippet of a Hulk Hogan sex tape. But Hustler itself isn't in the conversation.
It's Evan Roosevelt's job to change that. The 34-year-old has a background in both politics and tech consulting, and is currently attempting to revive the flagging Hustler brand by mirroring successes in the worlds of music and traditional publishing. He recently helped broker a licensing deal with the avant-streetwear brand Hood By Air, which he views as the first step in introducing Hustler to a millennial audience. "The marketplace of adult entertainment is changing, and we want to change with it," he tells me. "I think anyone under 30 or so isn't really familiar with Hustler as much as they could be."
Though Flynt still comes into the office every day and remains involved with the company he founded, the Hustler brand is very different from what it used to be. Most of the company's revenue comes from a pair of casinos in nearby Gardena, as well as the company's chain of Hustler Hollywood sex stores and a new generation of Flynt-affiliated Hustler Clubs that they launched with a third party. The magazine itself has a circulation of fewer than 100,000 and employs a full-time staff of two, relying largely on freelancers.
Still, Flynt himself remains an icon in the world of porn. "When Larry Flynt comes into a room, people stand up. He's a godfather-type figure," says the porn producer, director, and performer Joanna Angel. And Hustler the company is still a key player in the industry: Its pay-per-view channels often pay production studios for content; porn stars can make money by appearing at Hustler Clubs or selling branded sex toys at Hustler Hollywood stores. "They keep a lot of people in business," says Angel.
Just as Flynt did with Hustler in the 1970s, Angel spied a hole in the market and carved out a niche. She's the owner of the BurningAngel Entertainment production house, and is one of the pioneers of "alternative pornography"—think performers with tattoos and piercings getting it on to punk and metal. She was a featured model and had a spread in an issue of Hustler, and for a brief period in the mid 2000s was a part of the company's in-house production team. "When I first started my company, I dreamed of making something like Hustler," she tells me over the phone. "They were the first people to make hardcore sex mainstream."
Flynt himself was made mainstream by the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt, a prestige-y picture that sanded over the man's roughest edges and recast the pornographer (played by Woody Harrelson) as a renegade free-speech icon. His Supreme Court victory against Jerry Falwell was rendered as the ultimate vindication of a pure-hearted pervert who defended the nation's ideals even when he was rejected by the nation.
Though the film underperformed at the box office and high-profile feminists like Steinem accused the creators of glossing over the retrograde sexual politics of vintage Hustler, The People vs. Larry Flynt received rave reviews, and Harrelson earned an Oscar nomination.
"I'll tell you what the movie did, see," says Flynt. "Everybody knew who I was, but nobody knew my story. [With the film's release], they could get some continuity on my life."
The People vs. Larry Flynt helped reframe Flynt as a more conventional figure, and the internet soon made his magazine seem mostly harmless. Hustler may have shocked in the 70s and 80s, but with computers giving everyone easy access to the most depraved images and fantasies you could dream up, the publications no longer seemed so cutting-edge in the 2000s. And Flynt's personal provocations no longer seem so provocative.
In 1998, during the heat of the Clinton impeachment scandal, Flynt ran an ad in the Washington Post promising a bounty of up to $1 million for "documentary evidence of illicit sexual relations with a Congressman, Senator or other prominent officeholder." He wound up with dirt on Republican representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who was set to become speaker of the House but resigned instead.
In some ways, that affair (pun intended) was the climax of Flynt's long crusade against hypocrisy. But it's also just one sex scandal among many. When the Washington Post published a leaked tape of Donald Trump boasting about groping women this fall, it capped off nearly two decades of politicians being publicly exposed for sexting, shooting off creepy emails to congressional pages, taking "wide stances" in airport bathrooms, and disappearing to canoodle with their secret Argentinian mistresses. Flynt recently offered up a million dollars in exchange for dirt on Trump, but he came up empty—anyone sitting on a juicy tape or photo would have plenty of buyers.
The world Larry Flynt helped create has left him behind. Many of the tools he once used to punch up against power have now become a tool to kick the oppressed. In the culturally conservative eras of Nixon and Reagan, even the Hustler jokes that crossed into racism and sexism, or made light of rape and pedophilia, yielded conversations about topics that the mainstream had deemed too taboo to even address. In the age of the internet, wrote Kelefa Sanneh of the New Yorker in a 2015 article about free-speech fights on campus, "[Our] instinctive preference for 'free speech' may already be shaping the kinds of discussions we have, possibly by discouraging the participation of women, racial and sexual minorities, and anyone else likely to be singled out for ad-hominem abuse."
Thanks to social media, battles over free-speech rights are now often battles over the right of others not to be verbally attacked, and they're adjudicated not in courts but by the private companies that control the online conversation.This summer, for instance, the right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos declared himself a "free-speech martyr" after being banned from Twitter for directing a vicious harassment campaign against the black comedian Leslie Jones.
"You pay a price for living in a free society, and that price is tolerating things you don't necessarily like."
When I ask Flynt if he thinks forms of communication widely recognized as "hate speech" should be censored or regulated, he responds by challenging the validity of the term. "I think the Democrats are splitting hairs when they talk about hate speech," he says. "When you kill somebody, does it matter if you killed him because you hate him or you were just having fun?"
To Flynt, the right to shock, prod, and offend people is still something worth fighting for. "Free speech is not free," he tells me. "You pay a price for living in a free society, and that price is tolerating things you don't necessarily like." Flynt feels that not too many young people understand that. "They've been born into a culture with so much apathy that they take all their civil rights and individual liberties for granted, without realizing they can lose them as fast as they can gain them. It's not being concerned about your free speech expanding, it's just being able to hold it. It's very fragile. Even our democracy is fragile."
On Flynt's desk, resting next to a neatly arranged grid of dirty magazines, sits the book One Nation Under Sex, which he wrote with the historian David Eisenbach and is an examination of how sex scandals have shaped the untold history of our nation. Its first chapter, "Founding Flirts and Fornicators," seems to offer an implicit comparison of Flynt and Benjamin Franklin, who according to the book "became the first American printer to make a profit from his newspaper" through "attracting readers with salacious stories and an open discussion of sex." The book adds that when it came time for the United States to select its first ambassador to France, that Franklin's "irrepressible sex drive, unconventional personal history, and raunchy public writings made him the perfect choice."
I bring this passage up to Flynt. Does he hope history will reframe his legacy yet again and place him within the tradition of rabble-rousers instead of opportunistic titillators? Instead of selling sex, will we remember him for selling speech?
Flynt takes a moment to suck on his teeth. "I'll leave that for the historians," he says. "I'll probably be a footnote somewhere."
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