MAXWELL:  Flynt, Falwell find common ground

11/25/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


At the recent 95th annual Southern Newspaper Publishers Association convention, televangelist Jerry Falwell and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt debated First Amendment-related issues. The combatants, both important figures in contemporary American culture, sat a few feet apart, separated only by moderator John Seigenthaler.

Half way into the debate, Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority political party, stood, reached out and shook the hand of Flynt _ the very man who published a cartoon 15 years ago of the bejowled reverend intimating that his first sexual encounter was an alcohol-soaked tryst with his mother in an outhouse.

Why did Falwell shake Flynt’s hand? Because the King of Pornography apologized for the cartoon that caused Falwell to sue for libel, launching one of the nation’s landmark First Amendment cases. A lower court awarded Falwell $200,000 for emotional distress, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the award.

I came to this wealthy resort city to witness the kind of verbal fireworks delivered in the The People vs. Larry Flynt, the hit movie portraying Flynt’s life and confrontations with Falwell.

No such pyrotechnics occurred in Boca Raton, however. Instead, Falwell and Flynt performed as if they had been pals forever. I was not disappointed but was strangely pulled into this spontaneous bonhomie. The smiling Falwell, cloaked in his usual piety, appeared as someone I would like to know as he reached for Flynt’s hand. Flynt, the ultimate skin man, his voice alternately powerful and halting, seemed a bested “wild-and-crazy guy” imprisoned in a gold wheelchair.

When he said “I apologize” to Falwell, smiled broadly and extended his hand, something transcendental passed between the two.

I could not have imagined such reconciliation before arriving here. Because I was close enough to see the men’s expressions, I am convinced that the exchange was a moment of mutual respect. Seigenthaler, who had brought up the obscene cartoon simply to generate lively discussion, could not contain his delight at seeing the handshake.

Resisting the urge to make too much of the handshake, I wanted to dismiss it as one of those photo ops that impose their tyranny over unwilling participants. But I did not sense tyranny. Like me, the other journalists in the room _ who love and welcome a fight _ appeared relieved.

The Constitution had once again won out. Freedom of speech, we intuited, was more than symbolic. It was a living thing in front of us on the stage. Only in America, I thought, remembering my travels to foreign nations where government officials and many citizens deem free speech a threat.

Falwell’s attacks on Hustler and other forms of expression that the reverend and his ilk oppose offend me, but listening to the civil exchange between him and Flynt made me realize _ for the first time _ that he has a perfect right to argue the position of the Christian Right, to try to silence the voices of smut, to advocate his version of “decency.”

Of course, Falwell could have been putting up a diplomatic front. After all, he was among people who relied on the First Amendment for their livelihoods. I do not think he was faking, though. He seemed to understand that Flynt is not a “bad” man but one who simply does not share the good reverend’s views.

Their good-natured banter seemed genuine. “I’m his pastor _ if he has one,” Falwell said of Flynt. “I’m trying to change Jerry’s ways,” Flynt replied. After Falwell complained that Hustler’s portrayals of women are obscene, Flynt said, “If the human body’s obscene, complain to the manufacturer _ not me.” Falwell shot back, “After God created the product, he put clothes on it.” The audience laughed and applauded.

For all of its good will, however, the debate _ with Flynt trapped in his wheelchair _ constantly reminded us that the right to free expression can be costly. We journalists knew that we had gathered to salute Flynt. He had done what many of us never would have dared: risk life and limb to offend the sensibilities of the smug and the self-righteous.

“If the First Amendment is intended to protect anything, it’s intended to protect offensive speech,” Flynt said. “If you’re not going to offend anyone, you don’t need protection. I’ve been jailed and I’ve been shot for what I believein . . . ”

As the session ended, I sensed that Falwell and Flynt would see more of each other. Later, I heard that Flynt had offered to give Falwell a lift back to Virginia on his private jet.