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Court battles, controversy dominate Hustler founder Larry Flynt's history with Cincinnati

Flynt died Wednesday at age 78
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Posted at 11:26 PM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 11:32:23-05

Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine who fought numerous legal battles over the First Amendment, died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 78.

Since his early days, Flynt has dealt in controversy, including his litany of Cincinnati court cases fighting to sell his adult magazines in the city. Ultimately, that fight led to a multi-million-dollar empire, and some of his Hustler stores are still in Cincinnati now.

Born in Eastern Kentucky, Flynt started that empire with a series of bars in Dayton, and he went on to open clubs in Downtown Cincinnati and other cities across Ohio. By 1974, he had published the first issue of Hustler magazine, based on a club newsletter popular with his customers.

But when Flynt tried to bring his adult magazine to Cincinnati 45 years ago, Hamilton County courts wouldn’t have it. In 1976, he was tried and convicted on obscenity and organized-crime charges in Cincinnati.

“They feel very much threatened by Hustler magazine and by me,” Flynt told WCPO as he walked out of court in 1977. “It’s one thing they can’t control.”

He geared up for a showdown against then-Prosecutor Simon Leis.

“People in this country and this county will put limitations on how far the smut peddlers will go,” Leis said in 1977.

Flynt would later win on an appeal, but his legal battles continued. He won a landmark Supreme Court victory over Rev. Jerry Falwell, who sued him for libel over a 1983 Hustler alcohol ad. The court ruled that public figures cannot collect damages for emotional distress caused by a caricature, parody, or satire of the figure that a reasonable person would not believe to be true.

In 1978, Flynt was shot by racist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, who said he shot Flynt because Hustler published a photo of an interracial couple having sex. Flynt was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life after the shooting, and Franklin was executed in 2013 for multiple murders, including those of two Black boys in Cincinnati.

Flynt's legal battles continued over the decades. Despite winning an appeal on his Hamilton County conviction, Hustler Magazine wouldn’t be sold in the county for two decades as retailers shied away from the controversy surrounding the magazine and its lawsuits.

So, Flynt decided to open Hustler Books, Magazines and Gifts in Downtown Cincinnati in 1997.

At the time, when asked by WCPO's John Matarese what might happen if Flynt tried to sell the magazines in the city, he said: “I have no idea. If they do the smart thing, they’ll probably just ignore me.”

But when his new store opened on Sixth Street that October, crowds of people both for and against the opening arrived, either to protest or to buy Hustlers.

“I imagine it’ll level off,” Flynt said of the attention to his bookstore. "But remember: it’s still the only place in Hamilton County to buy the magazine."

With his new store came yet another court case -- another fight for the First Amendment, he said.

“I think the people of Cincinnati should have their right to decide on their reading material,” Flynt said.

Flynt's legal feuds would later be chronicled on the silver screen in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Flynt also played a role in the 1996 film -- as a judge who sentenced him to jail.

And, ultimately, his First Amendment fight in Cincinnati helped build an adult-entertainment empire.