King of US porn faces court again

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The Independent Online
LARRY FLYNT is the king of American pornography, a man whose fame, or notoriety, has made him the subject of an assassination attempt, the defendant in a high-profile obscenity trial and the star of an autobiographical film. But to many people he is also a symbol of the fight for free speech, and yesterday he took up that role once again in a Cincinnati courtroom.

The publisher of Hustler magazine was jailed in the Ohio city two decades ago for publishing pornography. Now he contends that things have changed, and what he does no longer breaks the law. It will be up to the people of Cincinnati - as represented on the jury - to decide if he is right.

Mr Flynt, 56, and his brother, Jimmy, 52, are charged with nine counts of pandering obscenity, three counts of disseminating matter harmful to juveniles, two counts of conspiracy and one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. If convicted, they could receive up to 24 years in prison and $65,000 in fines.

All of the charges hinge on the sale of videos from the Hustler store in Cincinnati, but the case could have much wider importance. Mr Flynt wants to use it to overturn a US Supreme Court decision that says obscenity is defined by local community standards. When the Internet allows people to find whatever filth they want, that no longer makes sense, he argues.

"The world is becoming much smaller," he says. "When that Supreme Court decision was made in 1973, those justices had an idea of what the community was. That no longer exists. If someone has a computer in Cincinnati, they can download material from all over the world."

When he faced the court back in 1977, he lost - in a drama that was turned into the film The People vs Larry Flynt - though his conviction was overturned on appeal. Since then, he argues that Cincinnati has (by his definition) grown up. "I really think the climate has changed," he says. Not so, counter the local authorities. "If he thinks the core values of people in this community have changed, he is miscalculating what people here are all about," Mike Allen, the Hamilton County prosecutor, said. "The fact is they have not changed - and that's all for the good."

Cincinnati is not a bad place to test the national mood. The city is in Ohio, a state that is famously a national weathervane where politics is concerned. It is certainly a very different place from the crumbling city that Mr Flynt found in the 1970s. The Hustler shop sits just a few yards from Fountain Square, the urban centre around which the city is rebuilding its battered and rundown core.

Nor is Mr Flynt the same man who first brought retail sex to Cincinnati. He is in a wheelchair, paralysed after being shot outside a Georgia courtroom. But he is also a celebrity, not just for the film but for a career that has made him the king of porn and even taken him into Washington politics briefly. Last year, he threatened to expose dozens of politicians for sexual hypocrisy during the Monica Lewinsky affair, though his efforts came to little.

But Mr Flynt's real importance is as a kind of moral symbol. At the end of the last trial, the prosecutor Simon Leis knelt in the courtroom and drew a chalk line across the floor. "There's no such thing as moral neutrality," he told the jury. "To protect our community, you've got to draw that line."

Mr Flynt has said that he would like to lose the case in Cincinnati, so that the issue is left to an appeals court - and perhaps eventually the Supreme Court - to decide.

The trial could be particularly important for those on the front line: the small-time porn dealers who can be found in virtually every American city.

"Everybody is paying attention," Paul Fishbein, publisher of Adult Video News, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "The risk is that if they beat him, with all his money, prosecutors will say, `Let's go after the little dealers'." And most of the tapes are relatively unexceptional fare by the standards of video shops, he said. "If they can get a conviction on these titles, we're all going to hell."

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