In Thirty Years, Flynt Hasn't Moved -- the Public Has

After interviews with the infamous trial babies Casey Anthony and OJ Simpson, the provocative Forum on Law, Culture & Society series, Trials & Error, has offered up for the public’s titillation and guilty delight Larry Flynt, infamous for milestone cases dealing with freedom of speech, most prominently including the 1988 US Supreme Court case, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell.

The series is helmed by the deft and articulate Fordham legal scholar [John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law], acclaimed author and interlocutor, Thane Rosenbaum; it focuses on high-profile trials that have captured the public imagination, and oozed beyond the courtroom into wider public dialogue and debate. It takes for its bailiwick the ‘big ideas of the day,’ particularly those that present a nexus between law, justice, human rights, and civil society. Under the popular management of series producer Joel Seidemann, a former longtime Assistant DA, and program producer Beth Karas, also independent of Fordham, a broadcast journalist and legal analyst, the series has brought together public intellectuals, government leaders and influential artists in evenings that, like them or no, present a rich ambrosia of intellectual challenge.

To an avid audience that arrived hours before the official start of the program, with normal arrivals assigned to overflow rooms, the panel presented no nay-sayers. On the panel held in the luxurious amphitheatre of the Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle, noted First Amendment advocate Floyd Abrams was a recognizable face; his colleague onstage was active trial and appellate litigation lawyer of Kane Kessler, PC. Both men have decades of argument and advocacy before the Supreme Court under their belts, with numerous First Amendment wins, as they noted during the course of the evening. Some of the wins, we were told, were 8 to 0, or 9 to 0. With a self-deprecating smile, Jeffrey Daitchman acknowledged he has also lost with the Supremes by the same vote count.

If years ago you were revolted by the parody Campari “ad,” penned by Mr. Flynt titled “Jerry Falwell talks about his first time,” which stated, in the voice of the well-respected evangelist Falwell, that his first sexual experience was “with [his[ mother, in an outhouse,” you probably never anticipated that the author of the "satiric" ad would in 2014 be warmly welcomed and applauded by a packed metropolitan Upper West Side crowd.

Up is down, day is night.

Looking pale and doughy, his demeanor often a deceptive mask of inattention as a result of his having been shot and nearly killed by a manic white supremacist decades ago, Flynt’s open mouth drooped on either side, in a sagging wide oblong that resembled the tragedy mask of Greek theatre. He sat in a shiny wheelchair, as he has since being shot in March 1978 in Lawrenceville, Georgia, a result of the supremacist’s rage over a miscegenated photograph of a nude Caucasian woman being embraced from the back by a handsome nude black male. The serial killer and racist gunman shot both Hustler publisher Flynt and lawyer Gene Reeves.

Flynt speaks slowly, with a drawl compounding the difficulty of catching his words, words produced with evident effort. He speaks with precision and considerable good humor, almost as amusingly as does the presenter, Thane Rosenbaum, whose questions to all on the panel are marked by fierce intelligence and insight, as neutral as one could hope, providing wide latitude for intelligent response from his guests and legal experts. The audience reaction, predictably, is naughty-child sniggering and supportive applause.

Rosenbaum shows clips from the Woody Harrelson eponymous film of Flynt’s life, various excerpts from courtroom proceedings, and grainy tape of Flynt over the years in key moments.

We learn nothing much we did not already know, except to see that despite his reputation as a pornographer, Flynt is honest, and condemns abuse of children in pornography or elsewhere, and has the grace to express doubt in such cases as Edward Snowden -- and Bradley Manning’s -- purloined revelations as to ongoing, unacceptable NSA surveillance. Such issues are not totally black or white, he allows. Questions from the audience produced more interesting discussion in a sense than did the packaged Floyd Abrams defenses, or the complicated legal tangles discussed at length by Jeff Daichman. He also could not fault the Supreme Court for green-lighting the strange and repulsive Westboro Baptist fringe group that attacks and curses families of soldiers being buried with outlandish signs and pronouncements. He repeated, correctly, that freedom of speech does not mean just the speech with which we agree.

One could see that Flynt had been on panels like this hundreds of times, and he was ready with witty rejoinders for most questions. As to why he ‘hated’ Falwell, despite touring around the country as half of a debate format, religion vs. porn rights, Flynt brought out the old chestnut he has been cracking for decades: “He [Falwell] beat me daily, like a drum. He’s a hypocrite, interested in money.” Most prominently, the reason he focused on sex, he avers, is that he “never understood why one could focus on the obscenity of war” in film, print and media, yet the depiction of “two people making love was somehow deemed unacceptable.”

Asked whether Falwell ever attacked Hugh Hefner of Playboy, or Bob Guccione of Penthouse, both publishers of notably erotic and highly sexed publications during the same time as Hustler plied its controversial wares, Flynt wanly peered at Rosenbaum, smiled thinly and shook his head.

In the VIP room before the start of the event, some two dozen of us were able to speak with Flynt and, if we chose, to snap his picture. He was affable and pleasant. One would not, looking at him in his shiny tech wheelchair, think this man had provoked so much ruckus and outrage over the years. Without Flynt v. Jerry Falwell, the panel agreed, The Wolf of Wall Street would probably never have gotten produced. Let alone warranted just an R, not the XXX it would've been burdened with years ago. But most people did not applaud the endless scroll of indelicacy blared over the three-hour spill of that screed for drugs, danger, and debauchery, even given the advanced sophistication we are supposed to flaunt.

Have we gained all that much, one wonders, from stained trench-coat precincts of the old sex-dredged fleabag-houses to the excesses and unmitigated unpleasantness heavy-pedaled in Wolf? Are we all that much better off now?

As the audience filed out, several hours after the panel began, Rosenbaum spoke the words that showed how “far” we have come since Flynt's public condemnation. “Thank you for gracing us here, Mr. Flynt. You are a freedom icon.”