Aesthetically, Flynt was a one-note gold accent obsession accentuated with frat-house-horny kitsch. Professionally, Flynt trafficked in offense, peddling whatever transgression would scandalize the most people.
He published nude photos of a revered, sanctified First Lady. He published a crude joke about a reverent televangelist coupling with his own mother in an outhouse.
Flynt provoked, insulted, and scandalized for profit. And he persisted to do so, despite enormous personal cost. This is how Flynt became an accidental First Amendment antihero, and an extremely important American.
Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, build a multi-million-dollar fortune in the adult industry and became a free speech crusader before passing away in February at 78 years old. AFP via Getty Images
A generation before the online culture wars and bad-faith actors popularized and then mangled the term, Flynt was a target of what we might call “cancel culture.” Except that unlike Josh Hawley whining about a (briefly) revoked book deal or Bari Weiss and Glenn Greenwald sanctimoniously “self-canceling” from plush jobs at the pinnacle of the mainstream media hierarchy in order to further self-promote, Flynt, a constant underdog, suffered and survived real physical and professional violence in the name of free speech, that almost always challenged a more powerful adversary.
In this way, he offered an example of what “free speech” actually is, and how precarious the First Amendment can actually be. He refused to be truly and actually canceled.
He took a bullet, went to jail, and gambled his fortune in commitment of this ideal. He was an antidote to the disingenuous and entitled contemporaries who cry victimhood at the first sniff of conflict, at the first challenge to their platform and authority.
You may not have enjoyed his company, and you may think Barely Legal doesn’t offer much to “Western civilization.” That was the point. In these and Flynt’s many other contradictions is a lesson in what our society’s ideals really are.
The Man With The Golden Wheelchair: Flynt was confined to a gold-plated wheelchair after a white supremacist, upset that Hustler published pictures of an interracial couple, shot him. Getty Images
Hustler was in every way a reactionary response to the social-justice warriors of the 1960s and 1970s. Flynt offered a rejection of both politically correct feminism and a repudiation of the smug, upper-crust liberal veneer of Playboy. Hustler’s founding ethos was a direct appeal to the “forgotten man” trope, the blue-collar man’s-man disturbed and disempowered by shifts in acceptable speech and thought. Flynt is sort of Donald Trump-like in that way, but he is also very hard to categorize.
In a very Hustler way, Flynt used his magazine to challenge accepted norms of racial and gender hierarchy. Flynt was confined to a gold-plated wheelchair after he was shot by a crazed white supremacist, who was upset that Hustler had published pictures of an interracial couple engaged in coitus. Keep in mind what a radical and provocative act that was, less than a decade after the Supreme Court struck down the country’s last miscegenation laws.
As VICE pointed out in a 2016 profile, Hustler also risked alienating that target base—chauvinistic blue-collar heterosexual males—when it published photos of a pre-op trans woman. Heightening contradictions like these, a serial transgressor, Flynt became a darling for critical theorists and cultural critics.
But what set him apart from the “intellectual dark web,” the contemporary contrarians who deem any consequence for their speech choices as censorship, is that Flynt was at constant odds with the power hierarchy, and not its product nor its defender. Flynt never demanded that his speech be given someone else’s platform, that Hustler not be sold in the seedy stores on the wrong side of town. That was okay; you knew exactly where to find him. Flynt did not demand Simon & Schuster publish Barely Legal, or scream into Substack when Chester the Molester wasn’t given a full-page in the New York Times.
The Obscene Man: Flynt defended himself against multiple obscenity lawsuits throughout his career publishing Hustler magazine. Bettmann Archive
The key moment in Flynt’s life, and the reason why he will live on forever in American jurisprudence and in law school textbooks, is his 1987 victory in the Supreme Court. Hustler Magazine vs. Falwell was the lawsuit triggered by the 1983 satirical Campari ad, in which Rev. Jerry Falwell—who used his immense power and clout with Ronald Reagan and the Republican party to marginalize gay people, AIDS victims, and, yes, women—was portrayed as a drunk who debauched his own mother in an outhouse. Outrageous and obviously false, the genius of the “ad” is that it demonstrates the concept of First Amendment free speech in its purest form: an affront, to power.
Larry Flynt found one of the biggest bullies on the playground and took his shot. Larry Flynt made a big man feel small. He continued to do this during his bounty-hunting years, when he offered million-dollar rewards for “verified” information of major political figures committing corrupt or immoral acts.
The obvious exception to this, where Larry Flynt is unsympathetic, is Hustler’s depiction of women. There is an argument to be made that any male-centered, male-dominated pornography industry harms women, who must be exploited and must have profit extracted from their labor in order for the business model to work. Hustler, of course, transgressed much further than this. Gloria Steinem believed that if Flynt had portrayed dogs and cats the way his magazine portrayed women, he would never have been in business. While she may be right, the irony is that Steinem’s broadside against Flynt and his somewhat hagiographical 1996 biopic, “The People Vs Larry Flynt,” fueled what was absolutely a moralistic cancel crusade, that gave Flynt more attention in the form of earned media than he could ever have paid for. And at that point, who was the more powerful figure: America’s most revered feminist, or the leering man-child and king of porn?
After defending himself against a lifetime of lawsuits, Larry Flynt became a self-styled free-speech champion. AFP via Getty Images
Larry Flynt hated the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. He hated corporate control of media and thought. He thought Donald Trump was a serial liar who deserved to be impeached. He thought cannabis should be legal and loathed the pharmaceutical companies, on whose products he was addicted.
At his best, Larry Flynt constantly challenged and afflicted power, and both accepted and challenged the attendant consequences. He would never be canceled, and he—unlike many others using the same rallying cry—knew exactly what being canceled meant.
I’m an award-winning investigative reporter and I've covered the legalization movement and the cannabis industry with a political economy lens for more than a decade. I launched northern California’s first cannabis-centric print vertical and founded San Francisco’s first dedicated drug-policy column. My work’s been featured in VICE, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, Deadspin, Observer, Curbed, Leafly News, High Times, SF Weekly, and many other places. I hold a master’s degree in politics from Columbia Journalism School. Yes, I know a guy.