Larry Flynt, the porn tycoon who died at the age of 78 this week, made a lot of people angry. He was a target for every prude and pious moral panic, and seemed to spend his entire life in the courtroom, defending himself and Hustler, his magazine-turned-media-empire, against charges of obscenity, libel and more. His signature cause was the First Amendment — not only a legal defense for publishing photos of women’s vulvas but controversial expressions of all kinds.
During one of those legal battles, Flynt was nearly assassinated. The shooting took place in March of 1978, on the steps of a county courthouse in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and did permanent damage to his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. Years later, his would-be killer confessed to the crime and many others, and if you can judge a man by his enemies, then this one made Flynt a paragon of civic virtue: He called himself Joseph Paul Franklin, and he had wandered the U.S. until 1980 in a solo domestic terror spree, carrying out a series of murders motivated by white supremacist beliefs. He targeted Black people and Jews; he firebombed a synagogue and shot civil rights activist Vernon Jordan Jr., who survived. And he hunted mixed-race couples.
In Flynt’s case, Franklin had been incensed by an issue of Hustler that depicted interracial sex — a Black man with a white woman. “It just made me sick,” he told CNN while on death row in 2013. “I threw the magazine down and thought, I’m gonna kill that guy.”
Franklin, who had changed his name out of admiration for Benjamin Franklin and Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels, was never tried for the attempt on Flynt. He wasn’t even charged. Instead, he was convicted and executed for the murder of Gerald Gordon at a St. Louis, Missouri synagogue, in a sniper attack that came a few months before he gunned down the flamboyant publisher in Georgia.
Flynt, with all his publicity experience, probably knew that putting Franklin to death would only make him a greater martyr for his racist cause; by 1989, Franklin’s rampage had been novelized in a lurid book titled Hunter by the neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, better known as the author of The Turner Diaries, a likewise repugnant work, and Pierce went so far as to dedicate Hunter to Franklin, who “saw his duty as a White man.”
But if this kind of lionizing entered into Flynt’s moral calculus on this death penalty case, he didn’t reveal it in print. Weeks before Franklin was to receive a lethal injection, Flynt penned a column for The Hollywood Reporter explaining that he was against capital punishment in principle, as there is no “shred of valid scientific proof” that it deters future offenders, it’s a “quick release” compared to years in a prison cell (and costlier to the state) and, he concluded, because “a government that forbids killing among its citizens should not be in the business of killing people itself.”
Although he fantasized of “an hour in a room with him and a pair of wire-cutters and pliers, so I could inflict the same damage on him that he inflicted on me,” he worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri to either prevent the execution or reveal the shady particulars of the process, especially the sourcing of lethal injection drugs. For Flynt, it offered another chance to expose the establishment as hypocrites and barbarians.
Flynt was a sensationalist, which meant breaking taboos wherever possible. It would be ludicrous to say that the interracial Hustler spread that put him in a wheelchair was some great blow for equality — in a sense, “Butch: A Black Stud and His Georgia Peach” exploited the same trope that obsessed and enraged Franklin. But this seems to have been the nature of Flynt’s liberalism, to always have it both ways. Pornography that broke barriers by invoking the regressive fear of racial cuckoldry. Writing of a desire to torture his assailant while simultaneously advocating for clemency. Venerating freedom of speech not really as a means of political dissent but the right to insult, provoke and titillate, which turns out to be political after all.
His contradictions were many, and his flaws were never a secret. But most of the time, he pissed off the people who deserved to be made uncomfortable. It is nothing short of incredible that he produced an erotic magazine feature that directed another man’s homicidal rage — usually reserved for ethnic minorities — at him. And chilling as the story is, one thinks fondly of the horror on Joseph Paul Franklin’s face when he opened Hustler to those pages, his inability to deny that this was the reality of sex and love in America, and he was powerless to stop it. Maybe, in his hatred, he could make an example of Flynt for helping to desegregate smut, but this would be a pathetic act, and the tide of history would roll over both of them anyway.
As it happened, Flynt had another four decades to clown the reactionaries of this world. For that, we can be grateful.