There’s a website from the University of Missouri Law School that documents the great trials in the history of the world – from those of Socrates and Jesus to more modern-day proceedings, such as those involving O.J. Simpson and Timothy McVey.
Among the 55 trials covered is one that took place in Roanoke. Yes, there amid the trials of John Hinckley and Bill Clinton is Falwell vs. Flynt, Roanoke, Va., 1984.
At issue was a parody ad in the November ‘83 edition of Flynt’s hard-core-porn Hustler magazine. The ad, playing off the “first time” theme of the Campari liqueur campaign of the day, presented, in Q & A format, the Reverend Jerry Falwell ostensibly discussing his first time – not imbibing Campari, but having sex (as was the double-entendre message of the real ads); and with his mother, in an outhouse just outside Lynchburg.
By January of ‘84, Falwell had filed a second defamation suit against Flynt, seeking $45 million in damages. In December of that year, the five-day trial began in Roanoke, with tight security, two dozen reporters and testimony from Falwell pal Jesse Helms, the conservative senator from North Carolina. The trial ended on December 8 with a finding in favor of Flynt, except for the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, for which Falwell is to be awarded $200,000.
Over the next four years, the finding made its way through several courts and ultimately to the United States Supreme Court, which in early ‘88 voted 8-0 to overturn the emotional distress verdict against Hustler, with Justice Rehnquist writing that the “First Amendment prohibits such a result in the area of public debate about public figures.”
In a broad sense, the upholding of the pornographer’s right to parody the preacher can be seen as evidence of a nation resisting the fears of totalitarianism, as outlined in George Orwell’s book, “1984,” which was written in 1949.
Roanoke Oil-and-Water Clashes Today
While there are no current local manifestations of the preacher/porner confrontation between Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell in 1984, there are a few lesser collisions of principle alive on the land.
• The proximity of our would-be economic salvation – the Taubman Museum of Art – and our actual downtown parking pest – Spanky Macher – serve to highlight, if not good and evil, at least the lack of parking for the area around the museum.
• Our neighbors in Lynchburg recently once again put us in the national spotlight, with the plead-the-Fifth appearance before Congress of Peanut Corporation of America’s CEO and the subsequent bankruptcy and disappearance of the company after the peanut butter product scare.