What with Rick Santorum burning up the airwaves talking about how the idea of separation of church and state “makes him want to throw up” (he’s never at a loss for a witty phrase, is he?) and dreaming of a state run by the church (as a wise commentator recently said “Rick wants no more separation of church and state…but only for HIS church”)I thought it might be nice to remember a Supreme Court decision that 24 years ago not only reinforced the concept of freedom of speech, but dealt a stinging wet-fish slap of reality to one of the nation’s biggest religious hucksters.
In October of 1983, Hustler magazine published, in its November issue, a parody of a famous series of ads running at the time for Campari liquor that played on a famous person’s “first time” trying the drink; the Hustler parody contained no such subtlety, depicting nationally known reverend Jerry Falwell as a drunk, a fraud, and, as once having engaged in incestuous sex with his mother. In the 1980’s, two figures could hardly be more different than Jerry Falwell and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt; Falwell was a symbol of the moral crusade that put Ronald Reagan in the White House, was a frequent guest of the president, and crisscrossed the country in his private jet getting little old ladies to send him their last dollar so he could “bring America back” to the morals he imagined it once had. Flynt was a pitchman, turning a newsletter for singles at strip clubs he ran in Texas to one of the raunchiest and most extreme porn mags of the day. Of course, the parody was just what Falwell and his ilk claimed was wrong with America, smut, filth, disrespect for religion and men of faith. Falwell sued, filing claim in his home state of Virginia, claiming the magazine had illegally appropriated his image, had defamed him, and had intentionally inflicted emotional distress.
Flynt’s defense was basically, “Can’t you take a joke?”; he argued that the ad was so over the top that no one could read it and possibly believe that it contained any true statements. He reiterated his position that Falwell had made himself a very public figure, and as such was subject to the same parodying and mockery that famous men have always endured; true, this particular mockery was more base than most, but Flynt and his lawyers addressed the long tradition of lampooning such beloved figures as Washington and Lincoln. Did Falwell think he was more important than Presidents? In December of 1984 the Court ruled that there was no libel, but found Flynt guilty of intentional inflicting of emotional distress, ordering compensatory and punitive damages.
Both parties appealed, and the case went to the Fourth Circuit, which refused to consider hearing the appeal; petitions were filed, and on December 2, 1987, the case was argued before the Supreme Court. Falwell painted a picture of a country overrun with pornographers and crime, a place without morals or virtues, one where trash like Flynt could insult one of the holist men in America. Flynt’s lawyer argued that the lower court had already determined there was no libel, based on the idea that no one could take any actual fact away from the piece, and that if there was no libel, no misstatement of the truth, then inflicting emotional damages was nullified, too. If it wasn’t true, it didn’t matter.
On February 24, 1988, the Supreme Court rules 8-0 to overturn the court’s decision; they rightly called Falwell a public figure and the Hustler parody a public debate. While I’m sure there were people all over America thinking it was a sign of the AntiChrist, this was a great victory for American culture, reaffirming that freedom of speech is all encompassing, for scoundrels as well as saints.
At a time when Falwell, who once famously blamed the attacks of 9/11 on gays and abortion providers, seems almost sane compared to the hate spewing Bible brown shirts of Bachmann and Santorum, it is notable to look back at how long we have been fighting this battle against those who want to decide how we run our lives, and it’s a pleasure to send a tip of the hat to Larry Flynt, who in his own perverse way made America a better place to live.