THE BLOG
01/14/2015 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Je Suis Larry Flynt?


There is a comparison to be made - not perfect parallelism, but a valid comparison -- between last week's slaughter of the Charlie Hebado staff in Paris and the 1978 assassination attempt that crippled Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. (Others have recently attempted to compare the attack in Paris to the Flynt story, but they missed the mark.)

In 1978, Larry Flynt began the rite of passage from pornographer to a recognized free speech activist when a white supremacist, who was offended by a pictorial of an interracial couple in Hustler Magazine, sought vengeance.

Five years later, Flynt's magazine published a tasteless parody that Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell found insulting to himself and his mother, and Falwell sued.

In 1988, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Falwell could not seek reparations for his hurt feelings. The Justices found that the First Amendment right to satirize a public figure is a cornerstone of U.S. law, and in doing so made Larry Flynt a free speech hero.

In 1997, Flynt's conversion from smut-lord to martyr was memorialized in popular culture, when Woody Harrelson played him in a Hollywood movie. Ten years later, Flynt revealed that he and Falwell had even become friends, forgiving each other for their extremist ways.

Modern America really has "walked the walk" with regard to freedom of speech. For liberals and conservatives alike, it has become the embodiment of the "inalienable rights" our Declaration of Independence says were given us all by our "Creator" -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Today, although free speech in America is certainly not unlimited, the US is one of only a handful of nations that even protects so-called "hate speech," unlike, for example, Canada or Europe.

In the last few years, the Supreme Court has used freedom of speech to justify unraveling federal campaign financing regulation, to strike down buffer-zones around abortion clinics, and to uphold the rights of producers to distribute films depicting animal cruelty. Next up: the Supreme Court decides whether posting threats on social media is protected speech under the First Amendment.

In America, the freedom has been expanded to include "symbolic speech." Flashing headlights to warn oncoming motorists of a speed trap -- protected. Refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag -- protected. Burning the U.S. flag as a form of protest -- protected. "Liking" a Facebook page - protected.

Americans have proudly exercised their right to fictionalize the assassination of the leader of North Korea, and the Huffington Post made a point of reprinting the very cartoons that cost the journalists of Charlie Hebado their lives.

America's expansive protection of freedom of speech is extraordinarily broad. Some might even call it extreme, just as those who would kill to silence an unwanted voice are most certainly extremists at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Some commentators have warned against sanctifying the memory of those murdered men, because the speech they died for was rude, uncouth, inappropriate, and offensive. Those commentators have missed the point.

In our society, vulgarians like Larry Flynt and the murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo are the vanguard who protect freedom of speech. They are the canary in the coal mine, whose death warns us of the unseen dangers gathering around us. Upon seeing the bird dead in its cage, no one asks whether the canary's song, itself, was worth singing.

Anyone who values free speech as highly as breathable air must recognize last week's attack in Paris as an attack on their fundamental principals.

How ironic that the attackers felt the same way about the cartoons that parodied their prophet.

Now the question is, if that's their position, and unfettered freedom of speech is ours, where can compromise possibly be found?