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16.10.17

The Pig That Proved Free Speech

One of the people I most respect in the world is Larry Flynt.  He was recently brought to mind for having offered $10 million for information leading to the imeachment of Donald Trump.  That's not the reason why I respect him, but rather for his crusade for Free Speech that was dramatized in the 1996 Milos Foreman film The People vs. Larry Flynt.

At the time I was becoming politically aware, Larry Flynt was fighting the US system, which was trying to squelch his right to speak freely, publish smut and lampoon public figures.  You can despise his publications (the most famous of which is Hustler magazine), you can hold the man in the lowest regard, you can even hate the man, but no one who loves freedom or liberty can deny his immense contribution to advancing individual rights.

Flynt's satire of preacher Jerry Falwell led to a lawsuit, Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Jerry Falwell, that ultimately led to the US Supreme Court decision affirming the absolute right of all individuals, no matter how or what they say, to have the right to say it.  The free market of ideas, the Court said, was far more important than the sensitivities of public figures.  The case reaffirmed that all speech is protected, not just speech that is pleasing or doesn't hurt one's feelings.

It is especially ironic that a mere 30 years after that landmark decision, the US is in the midst of a campaign to silence unpopular speech by the very ideologues and organizations that supported Larry Flynt.

The opening words of the Court's decision, written by Antonin Scalia, read as follows:
"At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one's mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole."

The New York Times, now one of the most vile enemies of free speech, filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in thsi case, reminding the Court of its own victory in the New York Times Company v. Sullivan case of 1964, in which the Court ruled that press reports on public figures had to meet an "acutal malice" standard to prove defamatory speech.

Larry Flynt's case established that individuals had an absolute right to express opions, even in the form of comedy or satire and regardless of whether the subject had his or her feelings hurt, as a means of expanding the boundaries of public discourse, because expanding those boundaries was always in the public interest.

It is highly entertaining to me, if not very disappointing, that the liberal left, which supported Larry Flynt's campaign for free speech, is now the very group fighting tooth and nail to shut down public discourse on the basis that someone may get their feelings hurt - the very reason they argued against in 1987.

The irony of history never escapes my bemused gaze.

Flynt v. Falwall was required reading for Communications majors.  Among a pile of other Supreme Court decisions, it was a lynch pin for anyone in mass media.  We had to know the parameters of the Sullivan test and the Court's opinion on free speech.  We had to write papers on our understanding and interpretation of these cases. 

I also just liked Larry Flynt because he hated the System and flaunted in front of it every chance he got.  I respect that in a man.  I've tried to emulate his example every chance I've had.

One of the most precious gifts Nature has seen fit to give humans is the ability to communicate.  We have a facility called speech that allows us to encode and decode messages containing our thoughts, opinions and feelings.  If someone has the right to express having their feelings hurt, then someone else has the right to say something that hurts feelings.  If you cut of one, the other must go, as well.

It is especially importnat that people be allowed to ridicule, lampoon and hold up for public display the words and actions of public figures.  These figures earn a living off of our labor and willingness to support them.  They, therefore, must endure our praise and our mockery.  It is the price they pay for not having to do real, productive work.  They know full well walking into public life that they are exposing themselves to this sort of scrutiny, and they cannot be immune from it.

To protect public figures from such treatment is to give them carte blanche for curruption and depravity, since they then have the power to shut down and punish such scrutiny.  We see cases al the time in the public sphere where public figures who are protected from public ridicule take advantage of it and devolve into subhumans who act as if they are above the rest of us.

All sides of public discourse have the absolute right to express their opinions.  To silence one voice is to ultimately silence all, since the arguments in favor of doing so apply to everyone.  No matter what is said by whom and to whom, there will always be someone who gets their feelings hurt.  The only solution is complete silence, which denies a very basic characteristic of being human.

We are in a critical juncture where the counter-culture is swinging from one political extreme to the other.  In the 1980s, it was the Moral Majority and the highly vocal right wing that was trying to silnce free expression.  It is now AntiFa and the left wing that is doing the very same thing.  The worm turns.

In the end, free speech is not a privilege granted or rescinded bv governments.  It is a vital part of being human, an intricate part of our Nature, that cannot be silenced without terrible destruction and damage to our civilization.  Wherever it has been done, unspeakable horrors have resulted.  It is a matter of historical record.  A dam eventually breaks when the pressure behind it overcomes the force holding it.

Whether you view Larry Flynt as hero or scum is immaterial.  The fact is his actions made people a little bit freer, and that is worthy of praise.