BY WAY OF GETTING around Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine who stands some chance of going to jail, I have to tell you that there is a man who works at The Washington Post who reports to work in the uniform of a Nazi officer. He is a tall man with a moustache and sometimes he gets into the elevator with me. I never know quite how to react.Sometimes I feel like giggling and sometimes I feel like going up to him and smashing him right in the face. Suffice it to say, I would rather ride up with someone else.
Different things go through my mind. Sometimes I say that this is just his way of expressing himself and I am all for freedom of expression. It's the American Way, after all. Other times, though, I think of what that uniform represents and I think that this guy is doing nothing more than provoking someone - committing a violent act simply by getting dressed as a Nazi.
Anyway, somewhat the same sort of confusion overtakes me when I think of Larry Flynt. There is little about him to like. I don't even like his looks. He publishes a magazine called Hustler, which is disgusting without apology and which is, as a result, immensely lucrative. If anyone in the United States can be said to pander to the lewd tastes of a certain audience, it can safely be said that the person is Larry Flynt. He would, I think not deny the charge.
Anyway, the thing about Flynt is that he has produced something of a literary flap. Lots of people have spent lots of time worrying about Flynt and getting into fights about Flynt. It is all because he had the bad luck to get himself sentenced to 7 to 25 years in jail. He was convicted first of using Hustler to pander obscenity and he was convicted also of engaging in organized crime. Once the jury in Cincinnati found Hustler obscene, the second conviction was easy. Under Ohio law organized crime is defined as five or more persons engaged in conspiracy. It takes at least that many people to put out an issue of Hustler.
That's part of the background. The rest of the background concerns a newspaper ad, paid for by Hustler, which likened Flynt to the Soviet dissidents. As an exercise in bad taste, it probably can only be exceeded by Hustler magazine itself. Some of it went like this: "Larry Flynt: American Dissident. Dissident writes and artists in the Soviet Union and other nations are being vilified and imprisoned, and President Carter has stated his deep concern. In the wake of recent events, we urge the President to take a closer look at the restriction of freedom of expression in America itself."
Well, the time has come to say that all these people have a point, but their point is nothing compared to Flynt's. Like the Nazi in the elevator, he is difficult to defend. But Flynt does have a point when he calls himself a dissident and claims that he is something of a martyr. You tend to lose sight of that because the man has managed to so obscure the issue that you would think, listening to some, that the wording of the ad is more important than the First Amendment right to publish. It isn't, and Flynt's cause is good enough so that he should be accepted on his own terms - not cleaned up like some kid about to face the judge.
But there is something more to be said and that is the feeling you get that a lot of people think that the Flynt case really doesn't amount to much - that our liberties are so secure that we don't have to to to bat for a self-promoting hustler in a double-knit suit. Well, they have a point, but if you're going to start choosing your fights on that basis you should take an elevator ride with me.
By the third floor, Larry Flynt is looking mighty good.