Larry Flynt Recalls Falwell in <i>L.A. Times</i>

LOS ANGELES - Hustler publisher and video entrepreneur Larry Flynt today eulogized his former adversary, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, in an op-ed piece in the Sunday Los Angeles Times – and he barely had an ill word to say about the man who sued him for $50 million for, among other things, "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

'Everyone was shocked at our victory," wrote Flynt of his four-year battle to vindicate his right to parody, "and no one more so than Falwell, who on the day of the decision called me a 'sleaze merchant' hiding behind the 1st Amendment."

Flynt had published an "interview" with Falwell as part of a parody of a Campari liquor ad in the November, 1983 Hustler, and the televangelist was so upset at seeing the claim that his (Falwell's) first sexual experience had been with his own mother, drunk, in an outhouse that he sued Flynt for invasion of privacy, libel and the associated emotional distress.

"It wasn't until after I won the case and read the justices' unanimous decision in my favor that I realized fully the significance of what had happened," Flynt recounted. "The justices held that a parody of a public figure was protected under the 1st Amendment even if it was outrageous, even if it was 'doubtless gross and repugnant,' as they put it, and even if it was designed to inflict emotional distress. In a unanimous decision — written by, of all people, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist — the court reasoned that if it supported Falwell's lower-court victory, no one would ever have to prove something was false and libelous to win a judgment. All anyone would have to prove is that 'he upset me' or 'she made me feel bad.' The lawsuits would be endless, and that would be the end of free speech."

However, Flynt opens his reminiscence almost 10 years after that victory, with Falwell grabbing the wheelchair-bound Flynt and hugging him when both appeared for interviews on an episode of "The Larry King Show." Flynt was at that time promoting his just-published autobiography, "An Unseemly Man," as well as the recently-released film The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and a face-to-face confrontation between the two old adversaries was the stuff great TV – and book/video sales – were made of.

Flynt recounts the bad feelings that led up to the Campari parody; how Moral Majority leader Falwell had referred to Flynt as "a slime dealer responsible for the decay of all morals" and "called [Flynt] every terrible name he could think of"; of the four-year court fight that had the pair appearing before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals twice before Flynt's eventual Supreme Court victory; and of Flynt's fear that he would lose his First Amendment right to satirize in the battle.

"Still, over time, Falwell was forced to publicly come to grips with the reality that this is America, where you can make fun of anyone you want," Flynt analyzes, though still recognizing, "No wonder that when he started hugging me and smooching me on television 10 years later, I was a bit confused."

But according to Flynt, the two became friends after their King show appearance, with Falwell actually visiting Flynt several times at his home and offices, and the pair agreeing to a series of debates on moral and First Amendment issues on college campuses around the country.

"We'd have interesting philosophical conversations," Flynt writes. "We'd exchange personal Christmas cards. He'd show me pictures of his grandchildren."

"The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself," Flynt assesses. "There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public. He was definitely selling brimstone religion and would do anything to add another member to his mailing list. But in the end, I knew what he was selling, and he knew what I was selling, and we found a way to communicate."

Of course, "communication" doesn't always mean "agreement," and over the years, Flynt recalls bashing Falwell for his virulent homophobia. But no matter why Falwell embraced his arch-enemy on the King show, says Flynt, "the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends."