There he goes again: Why DeSantis’ Fox News stunt may be unconstitutional

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to give Fox News an exclusive as he signed his state’s new voter-suppression law was a sleazy piece of political gamesmanship. But was it unconstitutional? Maybe. A 1974 court ruling established the principle that government officials may not ban members of the press from events that are customarily open to the media. I wrote about it a year ago in a case involving — yes — DeSantis.

What makes this unusual is that the law envisions an official who singles out a specific reporter or news outlet for exclusion. DeSantis’ stunt involves the granting of special privileges to one news outlet. That’s generally allowed, as with agreeing to an interview. But a bill-signing is the sort of public event that is almost always open to the press, so it’s possible that DeSantis may have stepped in it again. Anyway, here’s my earlier item.

Florida governor’s ban on reporter violates the First Amendment

March 30, 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to bar a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times from a news conference that was otherwise open to the press was a flat-out violation of the First Amendment.

Although the question of whether public officials can ban specific journalists from media events has never been taken up by the Supreme Court, a 1974 federal district court ruling is generally regarded as good law. I wrote about it a few years ago when a similar situation arose in New Hampshire.

Several decades ago, a similar situation unfolded in Hawaii, where an aggressive reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Richard Borreca butted heads with the mayor, Frank Fasi. Fasi decided to ban Borreca from regularly scheduled news conferences at his City Hall office. The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:

A free press is not necessarily an angelic press. Newspapers take sides, especially in political contests. Newspaper reporters are not always accurate and objective. They are subject to criticism, and the right of a governmental official to criticize is within First Amendment guarantees.

But when criticism transforms into an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.

Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.

Salem mayor calls for the Legislature to be covered by the open meeting law

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. Photo (cc) 2020 by the office of Gov. Charlie Baker.

Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise on a Monday morning. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has written an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe calling for an end to the state Legislature’s exemption from the open meeting law — a law that requires virtually all city and town boards and many state commissions to conduct their business in public. It’s a bit too late for Sunshine Week, but we’ll take it. Driscoll writes:

If 351 cities and towns can adopt budgets, engage in policy debates, hire and evaluate staff, and create local laws — all while meeting the rightly rigorous standards of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law — there is no valid reason why our state colleagues cannot do the same.

Driscoll also notes that Massachusetts is one of only 11 states whose legislature is exempt from open meeting laws.

Similarly, the Legislature and the courts are exempt from the state’s public records law, and a succession of governors, including Charlie Baker, have claimed that their immediate staff is exempt as well.

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Last fall, our Northeastern journalism students contacted all 257 candidates for House and Senate seats and asked them whether they would support ending that exemption. Sadly, only 71 responded despite repeated emails and phone calls; but of those who did respond, 72% said they favored applying the public records law to the Legislature.

As with the open meeting law, Massachusetts is an outlier: it is one of only four states whose public records laws do not cover legislative proceedings.

The central argument Driscoll offers is unassailable. If cities, towns and state agencies can comply with the open meeting and public records laws, so, too, can the Legislature. It’s long past time to drag the proceedings of the Great and General Court out into the sunlight.

Making sense of Judge Silberman’s diatribe against libel protections for the press

Judge Laurence Silberman. Painting by Peter Even Egeli.

We are probably a long way from having to worry about the libel protections the press has enjoyed for the past half-century. But Judge Laurence Silberman’s attack on the landmark decision New York Times v. Sullivan is the second by a prominent conservative in two years — the first coming from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Josh Gerstein reported in Politico on Friday that Silberman, a senior judge who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, wrote in a dissent that the “actual malice” standard set forth in the Times decision was a “policy-driven” result with no basis in the First Amendment.

“The holding has no relation to the text, history, or structure of the Constitution, and it baldly constitutionalized an area of law refined over centuries of common law adjudication,” Silberman wrote, praising Thomas’ dissent in a 2019 case in which urged his fellow justices to return libel law to state jurisdiction.

I wrote about Thomas’ dissent for GBH News, so I don’t want to repeat everything here. But the Supreme Court hit upon actual malice as a way to stop the racist white power structure in the South from weaponizing libel law — that is, filing bogus libel cases against the press based on inconsequential errors as a way of intimidating Northern media outlets during the civil-rights era.

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Thomas and Silberman both claim there is something perverse about actual malice, but in fact it is a logical evolution of how libel law developed over the centuries. Originally, the only element to libel was defamation. The truth of a published item was not only irrelevant, but it was thought that “the great the truth, the greater the libel,” since truthful defamatory statements can be more harmful to someone’s reputation.

That was the basis of “seditious libel,” which was nothing more than criticism of the government. That notion began to fade away following the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, a printer whose New York newspaper had defamed the royal governor, William Cosby. A jury acquitted Zenger after his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, persuaded its members that truth should be a defense in a libel case. It was an early example of jury nullification, as Hamilton’s argument had no basis in the law of that day. Gradually, though, truth came to be seen as perhaps the ultimate defense in a libel case.

Before Times v. Sullivan, libel was based on a two-legged stool — defamation and falsity. The decision added a third leg — fault. From that point on, public officials filing a libel claim would have to prove that the defamatory falsehoods published about them had been made with actual malice — that is, with the knowledge that they were false, or with “reckless disregard for the truth,” which later came to be defined as strongly suspecting that the statements were false.

There’s no question that this presents a high barrier for public officials. But it also gave the press the protection it needed to engage in high-stakes investigative reporting. As the late Anthony Lewis pointed out in his book “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate,” reporting on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate would have been much more difficult without Times v. Sullivan.

In the years following Times v. Sullivan, the standard was refined so that public figures would also have to prove actual malice; even private figures would at least have to show that the press had acted negligently.

Silberman’s dissent, by the way, is really something, drenched with grievances against the so-called liberal media. He writes:

There can be no doubt that the New York Times case has increased the power of the media. Although the institutional press, it could be argued, needed that protection to cover the civil rights movement, that power is now abused. In light of today’s very different challenges, I doubt the Court would invent the same rule

As the case has subsequently been interpreted, it allows the press to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity. It would be one thing if this were a two-sided phenomenon…. The increased power of the press is so dangerous today because we are very close to one-party control of these institutions.

He goes on to call The New York Times and The Washington Post “virtually Democratic broadsheets,” and lumps in most of the rest of the press as well. (The Boston Globe get a shoutout.) He cites Fox News, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the New York Post as exceptions, but adds “there are serious efforts to muzzle Fox News.”

I do not know what he’s talking about, unless he regards the mutterings of a small handful of Democratic members of Congress and media activists as “serious.” He also lambastes social media for cracking down on the right, disregarding the reality that those efforts have been aimed at eliminating falsehoods, not conservative opinions.

And as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple pointed out, the conservative outlets cited as exceptions by Silberman surely are in need of actual-malice protections as much as others. (Fox and the New York Post more than most, I’d imagine.)

Silberman ends with this broadside:

It should be borne in mind that the first step taken by any potential authoritarian or dictatorial regime is to gain control of communications, particularly the delivery of news. It is fair to conclude, therefore, that one-party control of the press and media is a threat to a viable democracy. It may even give rise to countervailing extremism. The First Amendment guarantees a free press to foster a vibrant trade in ideas. But a biased press can distort the marketplace. And when the media has proven its willingness — if not eagerness — to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power.

Fortunately, most conservative judges on the Supreme Court and elsewhere have taken at least as expansive a few of the First Amendment as their liberal colleagues. Thomas and Silberman would appear to be outliers. But freedom of the press is never guaranteed. This bears watching to see whether what is now a tiny flame somehow blows up into a conflagration.

The Trump campaign lost its libel suit because it really did collude with Russia

Michael Flynn. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

A New York state judge Tuesday tossed a libel suit filed by Donald Trump’s campaign against The New York Times. The suit claimed that a 2019 column by former executive editor Max Frankel was false and defamatory because Frankel wrote that the 2016 Trump campaign had colluded with Russian interests.

Two-thirds of Judge James d’Auguste’s ruling is not especially interesting. He ruled that the campaign lacked standing to bring such a suit, and that Trump would be unable to prove Frankel knew or strongly suspected that what he was writing was false — the “actual malice” standard that pertains to public officials and public figures.

So that leaves us with the third leg of d’Auguste’s decision — that Frankel was merely expressing his opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment. The standard was set in a U.S. Supreme Court case called Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist ruled that labeling a piece of writing as “opinion” provides no protection if that piece contains assertions of fact that could be proven true or false.

The way Rehnquist explains it is that to say “In my opinion Mayor Jones is a liar” would be unprotected speech (that is, if Jones could prove he’s not a liar, he might be able to bring a successful libel suit) whereas “In my opinion Mayor Jones shows his abysmal ignorance by accepting the teachings of Marx and Lenin” would be considered pure opinion and thus beyond the reach of a libel suit.

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So what did Max Frankel do? If you read his commentary, you’ll see he looked at a number of public actions and statements by Trump and people close to him to show that they were toadying to Russian interests, and that not only did the Russians expect something in return, but that Trump and his allies moved in that direction both during and after the 2016 election. We all know this. We all watched it unfold in real time. (It’s important to note in this context that “collusion” is not a legal term anymore than “toadying” is. In other words, labeling such behavior as “collusion” is protected opinion as long as the underlying facts are accurately stated.)

Among other things, Frankel cites the infamous Trump Tower meeting as well as incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn’s lying to the FBI about his discussion with the Russian ambassador before the 2017 inauguration about the possible lifting of sanctions. Those actions led to criminal charges against Flynn, to which he pleaded guilty twice before Trump, as president, pardoned him in the final days of his administration. Frankel writes:

Candidate Trump made no secret of his intention to forge a warm relationship with the Kremlin. But pledges of sanctions relief and other specific moves while not yet in office were unseemly at best and clearly offensive to the American convention that we have only one president at a time. Mr. Flynn especially had to lie because though already in transition to power he was directly undermining Mr. Obama’s still active and punitive diplomacy against Mr. Putin.

Frankel didn’t libel Trump, not just because of the technicalities of defamation law, but because he wrote the truth. Trump might as well sue Robert Mueller while he’s at it.

Reporter arrested at protest says it’s important for journalists to bear witness

USA Today has an account of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri’s testimony at her trial stemming from her arrest at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer. (The Register and USA Today are both Gannett papers.)

“It’s important for journalists to be on the scene and document what’s happening,” Sahouri said as part of her testimony. “Protests erupted not just across the country but all over the world. I felt like I was playing a role in that. I know we are a small city, but I felt like I was playing a role in that.”

Here, I think, is the key:

The judge has also not ruled on a motion filed by Sahouri’s attorney during the trial for a directed verdict to decide the case in Sahouri and Robnett’s favor. [Sahouri and her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, were both pepper-sprayed and arrested.]

This case should be thrown out as quickly as possible — not just to ensure that justice is done and the First Amendment is protected, but to send a message to the police and the prosecutors who are pursuing this dubious case.

Earlier:

Louisiana reporter sued for filing a public records request wins her case

A Louisiana reporter who was sued for filing a public records request has won what appears to be a total vindication.

Andrea Gallo, a reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, will received the documents she was seeking under the ruling by Judge Tim Kelley. And the state attorney general, Jeff Landry, will have to pay $5,625 to cover Gallo’s court costs. But don’t gloat too much — the taxpayers will foot that bill.

The records Gallo sought are related to a sexual harassment investigation of one of Landry’s top aides.

Earlier:

Don’t censor right-wing disinformation. Just stop making us pay for it.

Photo (cc) 2007 by Jason Eppink

Two Democratic members of Congress are asking giant cable providers like Verizon and Comcast some uncomfortable questions about their business dealings with three right-wing purveyors of toxic misinformation and disinformation — Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.

Among other things, according to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney want to know what “moral and ethical principles” are involved in carrying the channels and whether they intend to keep carrying them after their current contracts expire. This is not a good road to take. As Wemple writes:

The insertion of Congress into the contractual relationships of video providers with particular news/propaganda outlets, however, is frightening. Asking questions is a protected activity, of course — one that lawmakers use all the time. Yet these questions feel a lot like coercion by government officials, an incursion into the cultural promise of the First Amendment. Eshoo and McNerney’s letter hints that, unless the carriers proactively justify keeping OAN, Newsmax, Fox News and the like, the signatories would like to see them de-platformed right away.

The very real problem is that Fox News and its smaller competitors are unique in the extent to which they spout falsehoods and outright lies about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the outcome of the 2020 election. But what can we do about it without posing a threat to the First Amendment?

Liberal activists have pressured advertisers from time to time, which is well within their own free-speech rights. But Fox, in particular, is all but immune from such pressure because most of its money comes from cable carriage fees. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On the Media”:

They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box, and Fox is in the process right now of renegotiating 40 to 50% of all of their contracts.

A far more promising avenue is one suggested by the media-reform organization Free Press. Contained within its daily missives demanding that Congress take action against Fox, Newsmax and OANN for spewing “hate and disinformation into homes and businesses across the country” is a proposed solution that we all ought to support: mandating  à la carte cable so that consumers would only have to pay for the channels they want. (Bye bye, ESPN!)

The problem with these right-wing purveyors of lies isn’t that they exist. It’s that, unless we’re willing to cut the cable cord, we’re forced to pay for them whether we watch them or not, whether we’re appalled by them or not. It’s time to bring that to an end.

So yes, there’s a way to do something about cable hate without raising constitutional issues. Reps. Eshoo and McNerney should take note.

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Des Moines Register calls for charges against reporter to be dropped

In an editorial that’s getting a lot of national attention, the Des Moines Register is calling for a criminal case to be dropped against one of its reporters, Andrea Sahouri, who was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Sahouri was arrested at a protest on May 31 last year. Her trial is scheduled for March 8. The Register puts it this way:

Sahouri, who has worked as a reporter for the Register since August 2019, was doing her constitutionally protected job at the protest, conducting interviews, taking photos and recording what was happening.

If convicted, she’ll have a criminal record and faces possible penalties of 30 days in jail and a fine of $625 for each offense.

The editorial also notes that the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 126 arrests and detainments of journalists in 2020, most of them at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

And though the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor may resulted in a massive increase in such detentions, there’s nothing new about it. In 2018, police in Bridgeport, Connecticut, detained a reporter during a Black Lives Matter protest in a transparent attempt to stop her from doing her job. Their actions were the subject of a 2019 GBH News Muzzle Award.

The fairness doctrine is dead and buried. Let’s stop trying to bring it back to life.

Following the death of Rush Limbaugh, a number of observers — including me — noted that Ronald Reagan had paved the way for him and other right-wing talk show hosts by ending enforcement of the fairness doctrine. That rule, part of the FCC’s toolbox for decades, required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked.

So why not bring it back? It’s a suggestion I’ve seen a number of times over the past week. But though the idea of enforcing fairness on the airwaves has a certain appeal to it, the fairness doctrine is gone for good, and for some very sound reasons. For one thing, it applies only to broadcast, a shrinking part of the audio and video mediascape. For another, you can’t apply it to new technologies without violating the First Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the fairness doctrine and that simultaneously started the clock ticking on its eventual demise is Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, a 1969 decision based on the “scarcity rationale” — the theory that because the broadcast spectrum is limited, it may be regulated in the public interest.

The unanimous decision, written by Justice Byron White, involved an evangelical preacher named Billy James Hargis, who anticipated the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by a good decade. In a 15-minute tirade, Hargis attacked a journalist named Fred J. Cook, who had written a critical biography of Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate.

According to Hargis, the newspaper where Cook had worked fired him for making false accusations against city officials, and was a communist sympathizer besides. Cook contacted the Red Lion-owned radio station in Pennsylvania where he’d heard Hargis’ rant and demanded equal time. Red Lion refused, citing its free-speech protections under the First Amendment.

Justice White’s decision follows two main threads — that the FCC was well within its authority, as granted by Congress, to enforce the fairness doctrine and order Red Lion to provide Cook with an opportunity to respond; and that the reason the FCC had such authority was because of limits to the number of radio stations that can be on the air in a given coverage area. For instance, White writes:

Before 1927, the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector, and the result was chaos. It quickly became apparent that broadcast frequencies constituted a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the Government. Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacophony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard.

Later on, he adds:

Because of the scarcity of radio frequencies, the Government is permitted to put restraints on licensees in favor of others whose views should be expressed on this unique medium. But the people as a whole retain their interest in free speech by radio and their collective right to have the medium function consistently with the ends and purposes of the First Amendment. It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.

Red Lion argued, among other things, that technological advances were making the fairness doctrine obsolete. Justice White replied that new uses for additional broadcast spectrum were quickly eating up that additional capacity, and that the demand was likely to exceed supply for many years to come. It was a crucial point — and it also anticipated the situation that developed in the post-Reagan era.

White’s decision explains why the scarcity of broadcast spectrum was the key to upholding the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine. I want to drive that home for those who think a new fairness doctrine could be applied to, say, satellite radio, cable television and the internet. Without scarcity, there is no constitutional rationale for the regulation of content. And with cable and satellite, there are hundreds of options; with the internet, the choices are theoretically infinite.

If Fred Cook wanted to respond to the not-so-good reverend today, he could attack him on Twitter, start a podcast, set up a blog — whatever. But he would not be able to demand redress from the radio station given that he would have multiple other ways of making his voice heard. (He could also sue for libel if he believed Hargis’ words were false and defamatory.)

The central role that scarcity plays in these legal calculations can be seen in another case where there was no scarcity — Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo (1974), in which the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Florida law requiring newspapers to offer a right of response to political candidates who had been criticized.

In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger writes that even though media concentration and the demise of newspaper competition had led to a scarcity problem similar to that which prevailed in broadcast, it was the result of market forces rather than the unbreakable physical limitations of the broadcast spectrum. In order to start an over-the-air radio or television station, you need a license from the government, whereas anyone, at least in theory, is free to start a newspaper. Burger writes:

[T]he implementation of a remedy such as an enforceable right of access necessarily calls for some mechanism, either governmental or consensual. If it is governmental coercion, this at once brings about a confrontation with the express provisions of the First Amendment and the judicial gloss on that Amendment developed over the years.

First Amendment protections are extraordinarily high, and they can only be breached for extraordinary reasons.

When Reagan’s FCC stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine in 1987, it cited the rise of cable TV as signaling the end of scarcity. I would argue that the FCC acted too soon. But by the mid-1990s, there was no longer any good reason for the government to regulate speech simply because it had been broadcast over the public airwaves.

Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Alex Jones and the like have done serious damage to our democracy. But as Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

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How Larry Flynt beat Jerry Falwell and expanded legal protections for parody

Larry Flynt in 2009. Photo (cc) by Glenn Francis.

Larry Flynt, who took mainstream pornography to a new low, was an unlikely champion of the First Amendment. Then again, most First Amendment champions are unlikely. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, it’s “freedom for the thought that we hate” that needs protecting, not anodyne statements that offend no one.

Flynt, who died Wednesday at 78, many years after surviving an assassination attempt that left him partially paralyzed, achieved freedom-of-speech immortality because of a parody that he published in his magazine Hustler. It took up a full page and was meant to look like an ad, although the words “Ad Parody — Not to Be Taken Seriously” did appear at the bottom. The fake ad was a takeoff on a series of a real ads for Campari liqueur in which various celebrities talked about their “first time.” The idea was to make it appear they were discussing the first time they’d had sex, only to reveal at the end that they were talking about the first time they drank Campari.

The Hustler parody starred the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, a leader of the first wave of right-wing television evangelists and a figure of revulsion among liberals. Among other things, Flynt’s Falwell spoke about the “first time” he’d had sex with his mother in an outhouse.

Falwell sued for libel and the intentional infliction of emotional distress, arguing on the latter count that the parody met the legal standard for “outrage.” The case, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, established two important principles.

First, on the libel claim, Falwell contended that the parody was false and defamatory. Since he was a public figure, he also had to establish that Hustler published it knowing or strongly suspecting that it was false. A federal appeals court had thrown out the libel count on the grounds that there were no statements in the ad that could be subjected to a true-or-false test. In other words, no reasonable person could possibly believe that Falwell had sex with his mother in an outhouse and had then talked about it for a liqueur ad. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

Second, the Supreme Court overturned the appeals court’s ruling on the emotional-distress allegation. In so doing, the high court imposed the Times v. Sullivan “actual malice” libel test to claims of emotional distress: in order for a public official or public figure to win such a suit, they would have to show that the offending material contained a false statement of fact — again, with the knowledge that it was false or strongly suspecting it was false. The ruling established a significant new protection for parody and satire.

The unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, compared the parody to previous work by Thomas Nast about the corrupt Tweed ring in New York, vicious cartoons about George Washington, and other political and public figures. Rehnquist wrote:

There is no doubt that the caricature of respondent [Falwell] and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above, and a rather poor relation at that. If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description “outrageous” does not supply one. “Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression.

Whenever I teach our First Amendment course, I assign my students to write about a major case of their choosing. Inevitably, half the papers are about Hustler v. Falwell, nearly always accompanied by a copy of the ad — just in case I’d forgotten what it looked like, I suppose.

And if you ever get a chance to see the 1996 movie “The People v. Larry Flynt,” you should. It’s a rollicking good portrayal of the whole affair.

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