The antagonistic president and publisher of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt, has never shied from a public fight. In fact, he has been one of the more ardent defenders of First Amendment rights in the latter half of the twentieth century. His speech and press activism reached its apex in the landmark Hustler Magazine v. Falwell case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the petitioner, and about which Columbia Pictures made a popular 1996 film starring Woody Harrelson as “the pervert,” and Edward Norton as Alan Isaacman, the attorney that quashed Jerry Falwell’s moralizing-as-law before the nation’s high court. Now comes the Wall Street Journal with a story about how Playboy and Penthouse magazine sales have been prohibited on military bases. While a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service claims this was “purely a business decision,” we are left wondering, in this era of hyper-partisanship and over-wrought politicization: did the United States government help Larry Flynt even the score as a reward for his outspoken criticism of Republicans, which helped insulate our current commander in chief from the ballot box last November?
According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Larry Flynt contributed $10,500 to Democratic candidates and committees during the 2012 cycle. That’s not a lot of money, particularly compared to the funds that either George Soros or the Koch brothers, conservative and liberal boogeymen respectively, contribute to the various candidates and causes they prefer in a given year or cycle. But as I argued was the case with Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen in this space last year, this “small” amount of money is more well than many can afford.
Flynt’s celebrity provides him with myriad opportunities to make in-kind contributions to Democrats, too. In April of last year, as House Republicans considered tax cut legislation, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent emails to supporters in 50 Republican districts, arguing that the legislation would amount to “more tax breaks for the ‘rich and famous’,” people like Kim Kardashian and Larry Flynt. To my knowledge, Flynt did not object to his name being borrowed for Democratic Party activism.
The “smut peddler,” as Harrelson’s Flynt affectionately calls himself in The People vs. Larry Flynt, also took aim at the Republican presidential primary candidacies of both former Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Flynt rightly defended his constitutionally protected livelihood from Rick Santorum’s promise to “crack down” on the pornography industry. But regarding Perry, Flynt offered a $1 million bounty in print ads he purchased in the Austin Chronicle for any evidence of indiscretions involving the Texas governor that Flynt promised to print in Hustler.
While this was perhaps a clever marketing ploy for the magazine, the political damage was done: in the court of public opinion, Flynt had sown revived doubts about Perry’s fidelity and character. The Huffington Post ran a story on Flynt’s ad buy; Gawker Media-owned Jezebel published a smug post on the matter; the Democratic Underground fever swamps were more a-titter than a teenage boy thumbing through a skin magazine for the first time. The reliable Perez Hilton praised Flynt with a “LOLz! As he should!”
Of course, politics ain’t beanbag, and aside from the fact that there is no evidence that Flynt filed an independent expenditure report for his political print ad purchase opposing Governor Perry with the Federal Election Commission, nobody should begrudge him — regardless of his partisan identification or ideological preferences — for participating in the process, and using his resources to speak and attempt to frame Perry’s candidacy in a certain light. The who’s who of the professional campaign finance reform industry certainly remained conspicuously silent about this “money in politics.”
The 1996 Military Honor and Decency Act, which survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1998, saw Hustler forced out of distribution and sale at military posts (even though we had a hustler in the Oval Office at the time). Somehow, Playboy and Penthouse survived the act’s implementation. Until recently, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management F.E. Vollrath argued that “adult sophisticate magazines, if properly displayed on top shelves behind privacy panels and out of the reach of children, aren’t considered to be sexually explicit material and therefore can be sold on Department of Defense property.”
So why the sudden about-face?