Cambria recalls his former client, Larry Flynt

Feb 11, 2021

Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, has died at the age of 78.  Through the decades, as Flynt found himself in court cases centering on the First Amendment, Buffalo attorney Paul Cambria was often by his side. In calling his former client "the real deal," Cambria pointed out how Flynt's' legal efforts not only benefited his business, but the public's right to know.

Flynt was a hard core pornographer whose Supreme Court case in 1988 made him a free speech folk hero. Admire him, despise him — or both, Flynt left a singular mark on culture and politics. 

"He was the real deal. I've represented a lot of people who used the first amendment to try to gain some sort of economic advantage.. Flynt wasn't that way at all and every case we filed on his behalf was because he was trying to move the needle," says Cambria , who was at Flynt's side in 1978 when he was shot and paralyzed while on trial for opening a porn shop in Georgia.

"Pornography is really the purest form of art," Flynt told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1996.
The high school drop out was born in a log cabin, in Kentucky. His magazine, Hustler, started as a newsletter promoting Flynt's strip clubs. "I felt guys wanted to see ... more a girl next door, whether she might have small breasts, medium or large. Or be a brunette or a blonde," he said.

Hustler was a proudly knuckle-dragging answer to Playboy's highfaluting interviews and comparatively prim centerfolds. At its peak in the late 1970s, Hustler had more than 2 million subscribers. Hustler also published racist and anti-Semitic jokes, a long-running cartoon about a pedophile — Chester the Molester — and photographs literally showing women as pieces of meat. All of it, said Flynt, was satire.

"We created humor for Hustler which was considered tasteless and lowbrow and many times offensive, but it was the type of humor you hear and see in the workplace, the factories," he said.

Larry Flynt made his first million dollars by publishing nude photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, taken on the sly. She was one of the few who did not sue Hustler ... but over his lifetime, Flynt reportedly spent more than $50 million battling various charges of obscenity and libel.

In 1983, Hustler ran a fake ad featuring televangelist Jerry Falwell, in which he said he'd lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. "And they had to kick the goat out first. I mean, it was clearly a satire," he chuckled to Larry King in an interview in 1996, as they discussed Falwell suing him for invasion of privacy, libel and intentional inflection of emotional distress. Cambria took the case to the  Supreme Court. In a landmark unanimous decision, the court ruled Flynt's satire was protected by the First Amendment.

The publisher was lionized in the 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt. Actor Woody Harrelson got an Oscar nomination playing a lovable rascal fighting even with his lawyer- a composite character of several attorneys including Cambria.

Flynt was always in trouble. There was the time he wore an American flag as a diaper. Another time, he was fined for contempt of court and hired women dressed as sex workers to deliver $10,000, in pennies. In 1977, Larry Flynt became a born again Christian under the influence of President Jimmy Carter's sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton. He reverted to atheism a year later after a white supremacist shot him and paralyzed Flynt for life. He spent years addicted to painkillers.

"You can't discuss pain with people that's never experience it," he told Fresh Air. "Until you have nerve damage, you don't know what real pain is."

But Flynt loudly campaigned against the death penalty for the man who tried to murder him. Riding around in a gold plated wheelchair, he branched out into casinos and sex stores. Flynt ran for president in 1984 and donated millions to free speech causes, while antagonizing feminists with porn that — for example — glorified sexual assaults.

His truly gross pornography, says sex columnist Dan Savage, made Flynt a necessary outlier testing the principle of free speech. "At the same time, he helped create Supreme Court decisions that further enhanced and strengthened the First Amendment that protects us. So we should be grateful for Larry Flynt even if his output wasn't something you're interested in," he says. "And I'm certainly not."

Perhaps part of Larry Flynt's legacy, says Savage, should be a clear-eyed assessment of the porn so prevalent online now. "We need to say to our kids: You're going to see porn that's mixed up with anger, and rage and misogyny, as Larry Flynt's was, and you need not succumb to that anger, rage and misogyny."

But in 1996, Flynt described his legacy this way on Fresh Air. "You know, a free press is not freedom for the thought you love, but rather for the thought you hate the most. People need to tolerate the Larry Flynts of the world so they can be free."

Once, in a newspaper interview, Larry Flynt was asked to imagine the afterlife. Predictably, he described a place of constant sexual fulfillment — where no politicians are hypocrites. Even there, Larry Flynt will surely manage to stir up trouble.