“I believe in freedom of speech—but why do they have to be so disgusting about it?”
For a lot of people, that’s the problem with free speech—it seems like it’s always being protected by the “wrong” people: pornographers. Jehovah’s Witnesses in shopping malls. Westboro Baptist Church members at soldiers’ funerals.
Most of all, pornographers.
If you value the right to buy books, condoms, or vibrators through Amazon, you can thank the distributor of porn video-cassettes and condoms (Phil Harvey) who successfully challenged the federal government’s attempts to drive him out of the mail-order business.
If you value the right to create a website to discuss transgender rights or polyamory, thank the edgy artists, porn actresses, and courageous lawyers who challenged the government’s early attempts to censor the internet.
If you value the right to read books about taboo subjects, thank Lawrence Ferlinghetti–who went to jail for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “filthy” (i.e., homosexual) poem Howl.
And if you value the right to say whatever you want on Facebook or your blog, thank pornographer Larry Flynt.
Flynt died last week, age 78. He published some ugly pictures and words in his time. He even published pictures of interracial couples having sex. For that, a white supremacist tried to assassinate him in 1978. Paralyzed, Flynt spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, in constant pain.
Still, Flynt fought for every American’s freedom of expression by fighting for his own. In 1983 televangelist Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for $45 million after Hustler published a crude satire of the preacher having drunken sex with his mother. Five years (and a jillion of Flynt’s dollars) later, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Falwell’s claim that the satire had damaged him emotionally. They held that even clearly offensive speech directed at public figures like Falwell was constitutionally protected, as long as it didn’t claim to be factual.
“We could hardly draw the way we do if subjects could claim emotional stress as a result,” said Los Angeles Times political cartoonist Paul Conrad, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
Aren’t There Limits?
Most people say they favor freedom of speech, but many add “but there are limits.” Of course there are—you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. Or advertise “this drug will cure cancer” when it won’t. Or say “let’s storm the Capitol and punish the traitors” to an angry mob of people with weapons.
Many people understand those limits. “But saying or publishing pictures of really ugly things”—like naked people on a leash eating out of a dog bowl, or women being ground up— “why do people have to push the limits?” people ask. “Why do people have to take advantage of free speech?” people ask. “Why do MY rights have to be defended by disgusting people saying ugly things?”
The answer is simple: that’s how it works. No one will try to take away your right to post cat videos. No one will try to prevent you from blogging or instagramming about your latest apple pie triumph.
But people DO try to prevent you from writing about your kinky sexual experiences, your transgender politics (pro- or con), your contempt for Christianity or Islam. Who’s going to protect your right to buy and get a dildo through the U.S. mail? Or get accurate information about herpes? Or prevent the FCC from regulating the then-new realm of cable TV with “decency standards”?
Flynt publicly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq when mainstream publications didn’t. He opposed the death penalty (including for the gunman who paralyzed him for life). He supported same-sex marriage when it was politically radioactive. He was among the very first to talk about the Religious Right as a serious political force out to control every American’s rights to contraception, non-heterosexuality, and sex education.
Gloria Steinem once called Flynt violent and sadistic. He was no angel.
But Flynt never backed down from a fight about principles—even from his gold-plated wheelchair, even when it cost him a fortune. He had a vision of free speech that protected vulgarity and crudeness—so that political and sexual minorities could thrive, and people could express themselves in ways that others found offensive. That would, of course, include some of YOUR ideas.
Decade after decade, that’s what pornographers have done. Disgusting pornographers like Larry Flynt.
If you liked this post, you’ll enjoy my piece at www.MartyKlein.com/linda-tripp-not-a-whistleblower/
And check out my latest video quickie: www.youtube.com/c/drmartyklein1