1988: U.S. Supreme Court Defends Right To Satirize Public Figures

By | February 22, 2021

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(Getty Images)

In 1988, the king of filth went head-to-head with the leader of the moral majority in the Supreme Court, battling over what could and couldn't be said about a public figure, in the infamous case of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. It all started in 1983, when Larry Flynt ran a satirical ad for Campari in a 1983 issue of Hustler featuring fake quotes attributed to Jerry Falwell about losing his virginity in an incestuous encounter that took place in an outhouse. Flynt and Falwell spent the next five years in court, but in the end, the unlikely duo went from the worst of enemies to something like friends.

In The Red Corner: Jerry Falwell

On paper, Jerry Falwell was the polar opposite of Larry Flynt. Throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, he was one of the most well-known figures in evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, thanks to the monumental amount of air time he received after founding the Moral Majority, one of the largest political lobbying groups for evangelical Christians in the United States. He was largely responsible for leading evangelicals away from the Democratic Party following the election of Jimmy Carter and creating the modern Republican Party. Though he later welcomed debate on a variety of hot-button issues, the Jerry Falwell of the late 20th century was anything but open to a philosophical discussion of right and wrong, especially when it put him in the cross-hairs.

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Larry Flynt (left) and his brother, Jimmy, in court in 1977. (DrLevingston2/Wikimedia Commons)

In The Blue Corner: Larry Flynt

To Jerry Falwell and his "moral majority," Larry Flynt was public enemy number one, the publisher of the raunchiest hardcore pornography magazine widely circulated in the U.S. Flynt was no stranger to the free speech struggle: In 1978, he was on a break at a misdemeanor obscenity trial when he was shot by a neo-Nazi serial killer, leaving him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. It did little to slow him down: From his wheelchair, he continued publishing his magazine and fighting for his First Amendment right to do so.