If I had known it would come to this -- defending a porn king -- I might have gone into another line of work. Something cleaner, like sniffing out truffles. My parents did not raise me to truck with the Larry Flynts of this world, even when they are wrapped in plain brown paper.
There is nothing that strokes the massive ego of the publisher of Hustler magazine more than when his enemies come to his defense. The only thing that would make him happier would be if they posed for the centerfold.
It's no fun to defend the offensive. Who among us can forget Hustler's early photo-feature of a woman being ravished by a snake? Who can forget the high level of humor the magazine directed at Betty Ford's breast cancer?
For one brief moment in 1977, after Flynt was shot by an assailant in Georgia, where he was standing trial for pornography, he was brought back to religion by Ruth Carter Stapleton. She called him, fondly, "a baby Christian."
But any hopes that he might grow up were soon dashed by his description of the story ideas lurking in his new religious outlook. "We've got all the sex we need right out of the Scriptures," he said. Then he shared a possible cover line for his born-again magazine, ""Inside: Ruth Carter Stapleton Shows Pink for Jesus." Then in the centerfold we'd have her standing in a pink dress holding a copy of the Bible."
Some kidder, our boy Larry. The 1,066,537 readers of Hustler would find that one a real thigh-slapper. It fulfills his journalistic code: "If we have an editorial taboo, it's good taste."
Nevertheless, notwithstanding, all that considered, and excuse me while I wash my hands, Larry Flynt was done wrong by a Virginia jury.
Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell brought a case of libel against Flynt and his magazine for running a parody advertisement that portrayed Falwell as someone who had sex with his mother and always got drunk before a sermon. It was about as funny as your average 5-year-old's bathroom joke. It did not in anyway break Flynt's editorial taboo. The parody-ad carried a disclaimer at the bottom of the page: not to be taken seriously.
Falwell, however, was not amused. He filed a $45 million libel suit.Last week, the jury found that the magazine was not guilty of libel, since the parody was too outrageous for anyone to believe. But it went on to award Falwell $200,000 in damages anyway.
It appears that the jury simply couldn't stand letting Hustler off the hook. Larry Flynt innocent? Surely the man down on the raunch should pay for his sleaze. So the jury concocted a way. The split decision was a bit like finding someone innocent of charges but sending him to jail anyway because he was, in general, a "guilty" sort of disreputable creep.
Falwell's award was divided into two parts and two problems. He got $100,000 in punitive damages for malicious parody and $100,000 in actual damages for emotional distress. If this decision stands (it is being appealed), any satirist or would-be humorist had better watch out for nastiness. Good-bye, "Saturday Night Live." Hello, pabulum.
The very point of satire is to draw blood. As Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz attests, "Under the First Amendment you are allowed to inflict emotional damage on people." Where would the editorial cartoonist be without malice aforethought? Would every satirist have to worry about the sensitivity of his or her subject?
Jerry Falwell is not high on my political dance card. But I don't believe he is so thin-skinned that he retreated to his bedroom with vapors when someone showed him the magazine.
Falwell seems to have used the fake ad in his fund-raising drive for a campaign against pornography. Maybe it was flattering. As Dershowitz says, "If Hustler is the devil and the devil comes to Earth to say that Jerry Falwell is drinking and sleeping with his mother, then Falwell knows he's doing his job right."
Falwell's feelings are actually irrelevant to this case. The jury ruled that nobody could take the parody seriously and then awarded Falwell $200,000 because he was hurt seriously. You can't have it both ways. If it's not libel, Hustler wasn't liable.
Larry Flynt is tasteless and humorless, sleazy and slimy, but he's on the right side in this case. If he sends me a thank-you note, my mother will wonder where she went wrong.