aaLAWchak: The People vs. Larry Flynt

We chose this movie in light of the recent Charles Hebdo shootings that took place and resulted in the death of twelve innocent people, who were doing nothing but exercising their right to freedom of expression. We have a right to expression and everyone has the right “not to read them” if it offends them. This is a tribute to them.


Movie: The People vs. Larry Flynt 

Starring: Edward Norton, Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love

Directed by: Milos Forman

Year of Release: 1996

“If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it will protect all of you.” – Larry Flynt

That line sums up the entire movie for you and almost everything Larry Flynt fights for, but you might still want to watch it, because if you do not, you will miss an entire lesson on freedom of expression. Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) the main protagonist, is a small time “business” owner, (when I say business I mean a strip club owner). Seeing the success of Playboy (A dirty Magazine) and how it is raking in profits, he decides to start a magazine called “Hustler” (A dirtier Magazine). He is not a playboy or a womanizer, he is a plain simple businessman and only starts the dirty magazine because it will give him immense amount of profit. Larry Flynt is a vocal revolutionary and is not afraid to say things that most people are even afraid to admit to themselves, and you will fall in love with him for that.


The movie set in the 1970’s is an humorous take on the American repression and revolt. Larry Flynt turns into a millionaire on the basis of his magazine and turns “Hustler” into a publishing empire. He also publishes a number of satirical cartoons and advertisements in his magazine making fun of famous public figures. However, one such satirical advertisement turns out to be over-the-top parody disparaging Falwell (a crusading televangelist) and suggesting that he was an immoral drunk. This results in Rev. Jerry Falwell filing a $40 Million law suit for defamation against Larry Flynt.

The satirical advertisement made in bad/good taste throws up an interesting legal issue.Was Rev. Jerry Falwell legally correct in getting offended? Where does the line between parody ends and defamation starts? The reverend intends to find out and takes Larry Flynt to court.

Falwell initiates legal proceedings against Larry Flynt for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress in the today’s most celebrated case of Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988) . But, Larry Flynt is man who does not back down so easily and decides to find out why is his ‘right to criticise someone’ is being curtailed. In his reasoning it was just a satirical cartoon on a public figure, how can he be told what to publish and not to publish? He decides to contest and find out what actually is the right of a person who wants to express his thoughts. The outspoken anarchist he is, he takes the fight for the right to expression to such an extreme level that the settled conformist and conservatives are not ready for.

There’s a spectacular sequence in which Flynt stands on a stage with images of pornography and war atrocities flashing behind him. The scene revivifies an old argument, as to  what can be considered more obscene, a war in which millions of innocent young men die so a nation can prove a frivolous point or pornography?. This is a pure testament to Flynt’s awesome garishness.

Larry Flynt soon meets his future best friend Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton). Who, for the first time explains our protagonist, the concept of Civil Liberty. Thereafter, a legion of legal battles follow and the court scenes are pure gold, Larry Flynt throws oranges at judges, wears t-shirts that state “I wish I was black” and “Fuck this court”.


However, Rev. Jerry F. Fallwell scores an indirect victory in the form of Larry Flynt being held liable for Libel by the Court. However, Larry Flynt does not care as he believes he is too big for what the Court has to say. However, his arrogance which comes from his success and towering stature in publishing is destroyed due to the death of his wife, who he loves dearly. He in a private conversation with Alan pleads that he wants to be remembered for good.

The case against Rev. Jerry Fallwell is appealed in the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The US Supreme Court finds that public officials and public figures may not be able to recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress without additionally showing that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with actual malice. (1st Amendment – Right of free speech.)

The Court finds that this might be true for a private figure. However, the Court finds that for a public figure, the balance tipped towards freedom of speech because political cartoonists and satirists are an important part of the public discourse and there would be a chilling effect on them if they were subjected to huge damages.

But, let’s imagine an alternate timeline, if Rev. Jerry Falwell had won the case would it have been possible to make any satirical cartoon at all? How much would it have curtailed our freedom of speech?  The newspapers and magazine would never risk offending a public officer. Criticism would have been severely curtailed and the loud hosts of televised news would have had to think twice before asking a slightly offending question?

Sure, there would be no statutes of Larry Flynt nor will he be his story be a part of history books. But he probably did as much for the civil liberties of the American Citizens as much as any revolutionary who came before him or will ever come after him. However, the disinterest of Larry Flynt is apparent at the end of the film, when all he does to celebrate his success and cementing the law on Freedom of Expression is to remember his wife while watching a home made film of her. He did all of this so he and his wife can be fondly remembered for good. Truly, the only reason for doing anything.


The real Larry Flynt makes a cameo appearance as a judge.

Legal Aspect:

Freedom of Expression:

Unfortunately, India is still awaiting its Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, a number of artist are still prosecuted for poking fun at public figures, newspaper offices destroyed and Television host threatened by God men. The Freedom of expression in the United States of America allows you to burn the American Flag in the US but in India you will attract provisions of Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act,1971 and the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950. This is not mere speculations. Shah Rukh Khan was booked for insulting the Indian Flag because he raised the Indian Flag upside down by mistake, and the most recent spat has been by Maliaka Sherawat for the film Dirty Politics.

The PMO legally closed down six other private twitter accounts because they had the name PMO India.

There are very few cases where freedom of expression has been upheld. One such case would be Shri Ashwani Dhir And Ors. vs The State Of Bihar AIR 2005 Pat 101, which was about a television show parodying Former Chief Minister of Bihar and his family. Injunction was quashed by the court and the court upheld the freedom of expression, stating that the Television shows that incite violence or encourage public disorder and lawlessness can be considered as being unlawful. However, the fact that the Shows protagonist had an owl as a symbol of the party gives no grounds for the granting of an injunction. The Court also held that Freedom of expression of an artist cannot be curtailed since it offends certain minor groups. The case is one of the first to uphold the freedom of expression.

However, the Delhi High Court has also shown some leniency towards parodying and freedom of expression by way of Tata Sons Limited vs Greenpeace International & Anr; CS (OS) No. 1407/2010. The lawsuit was initiated by Tata Sons, the owner of India’s most valuable – and possibly best protected – trademark, following the launch in May 2010 of a Pac-Man style game called “Turtle vs Tata” on Greenpeace India’s website. The game not only uses the Indian company’s “TATA” mark and a stylized version of its “T within a circle” device, but also contains references to “Tata demons”. Section 29(4) of the Trade Marks Act, 1999 was was cited which refers to infringement of a registered trademark by use of the mark without the consent of the registered proprietor with undue cause and in the course of trade. The Bonnard Rule was applied in the present case and it was the relevant paragraph of Bonnard v. Perryman, [1891] 2 Ch 269, was cited “The right of free speech is one which it is for the public interest that individuals should possess, and,…. Until it is clear that an alleged libel is untrue, it is not clear that any right at all has been infringed; and the importance of leaving free speech unfettered is a strong reason in cases of libel for dealing most cautiously and warily with the granting of interim injunctions..” Furthermore, the Delhi High Court observed “The Court cannot also sit in value judgment over the medium (of expression) chosen by the defendant since in a democracy, speech can include forms such as caricature, lampoon, mime parody and other manifestations of wit. The defendant may – or may not be able to establish that there is underlying truth in the criticism of the Dhamra Port Project, and the plaintiffs involvement in it. Yet, at this stage, the materials on record do not reveal that the only exception

Relevant provisions pertaining to defamation law in India:

  • Libel – defamation as a tort and as a crime under Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860

  • Breach of privacy as a tort only

  • Improper use of certain emblems and names [Sec. 2(a) and 3 of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950 read with the Schedule No. 9. Civil penalty of Rs. 5000 for such improper use.]

  • Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 – Any public forum message status update/tweet or photo sarcastic/ironic would qualify as “grossly offensive” and constitute an offence under it. Section 66A is under scrutiny by the Supreme Court of India (to see if it will be deemed unconstitutional) in the case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India.

Author: Govind K. Chaturvedi

Editor: Ankit Rastogi

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