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FREE SPEECH SPEECH

SOME PEOPLE ARE STILL VS LARRY FLYNT

Extract from director Milos Forman's address to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on January 31, 1997, after the controversy broke over his film, The People Vs Larry Flynt, for which he won the Best Director Golden Globe Award. The film is based on the Hustler publisher’s life.

I have no argument with those who find some of the contents of Hustler objectionable. I myself find some of its stuff objectionable. I had never bought Hustler in my life. When I was preparing this film and had to go through endless amount of Hustlers, I cringed. Men as well as women are often portrayed on its pages with brutish vulgarity. Sexual and otherwise.

But surely to equate - as one of my film's critics does - a printed page, however tasteless, with the Nazi slaughter, a slaughter that deprived a sizable portion of the earth's population of their lives is, to say the least, intemperate. The critics of my film know that it is not possible to legislate taste, therefore they argue that pornography results in acts of violence.

Well, I don't know whether studies have proved this assertion. I do know, however, that a study of human social history will unarguably disclose that one of our most noble emotions - love - has prompted more damage, more violence, more suicides, even more murders than can ever be ascribed to pornography.

Should we blame Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story every time an unhappy lover loses control and does something damaging because of the unbearable pain of love in his or her heart? Should we call on Hollywood to stop making these kinds of movies?

I did not want to make pornography the focus of this talk. It is a digression. I did so because the same few critics are trying to convince the public that the goals and themes of my film are identical to those of Hustler.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

My film is not, and never was intended to be, about pornography, pro or con.

Its writers did not conceive it that way and nor did I.

That's why the film's climax is the case Larry Flynt and his lawyers brought before the Supreme Court. And this case itself is not about pornography.

The case is about our right to satirise, to be irreverent in newspaper columns, in political cartoons, in books and theatres and movies.

There has been a concerted attempt to trivialise this victory for the First Amendment, to sneer at it as insignificant.

I am not a civil rights specialist but I believe that this victory, far from being trivial, is vital.

I would hate to think of the voices that might be silenced or their owners placed in jails had the Supreme Court ruled differently.

And I am not ashamed to say that this film for me is a love letter to the Supreme Court of the United States.

As to the objections to Larry Flynt as the main protagonist: I hardly think the First Amendment would have been put to the test by somebody who, on occasion, used a few profane words. I understand that irony and ambiguity can make some people feel uneasy but I am drawn to both.

And for good reason: comfortable certainties in human behaviour are rarely worth exploring and, moreover, they are boring. I am a filmmaker, so you do understand that I am not averse to entertaining the audience.

Or myself. In truth, I think it essential. Especially when you are trying to get across ideas that I believe are more important than just a car chase.

The ambiguities in Mr. Flynt's actions certainly engaged my interest.

And still do.

Was he a sincere, tenacious battler for freedom of expression or is he a cynical smut peddler who used his constitutional rights to ensure that he would be able to sell more dirty pages?

Is it possible that he is both?

And if he is, is he more one than the other? Which? Was Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who aided Jews, a humane saver of lives or a Nazi, an exploiter who used slave labor for notably profitable results? Which? Or both?

These issues, and many others, will, I hope, make us think. But is thinking about such matters - even if we are using the pornographer as the protagonist of our story - so dangerous that it could destroy the moral fibre of our society?

Some insist that it will do just that. If this is the case, we have a serious problem on our hands. Including rethinking the wisdom of our Founding Fathers.

The argument that they would be shocked to see what's published today on the pages of Hustler doesn't really persuade me that we should turn the clock back. I don't buy that.

First: I am convinced that the English and European politicians of the seventeenth century would have been absolutely alarmed by some of the ideas of our Founding Fathers.

Second: I doubt that they were so ignorant as not to be familiar with Boccaccio or Rabelais or the etchings of the period which would make Larry Flynt blush. Which is probably exaggeration.

Not every country has the guts to rise to its best when challenged by its worst. In this century alone, the countries of Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Mozart, Freud - when challenged by the Nazis - buckled.

The countries of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Kafka, Dvorak - when challenged by the communists - buckled.

Does anybody believe that Hitler or Stalin could have survived if they had not muzzled the free press? If people could have read, heard and discussed the atrocities committed daily by these regimes?

I doubt that.

And it was always the pornography that was their first target.

Understandably.

Who would object to cleaning up smut? As a matter of fact, the majority usually welcomes such high moral purpose. But how surprised this same majority was, when they realised that the official definition of smut included not only pornographers, prostitutes and homosexuals, but Jews, Blacks and Slavs. The Communists expanded the list to include Christians, Moslems, the capitalists and indeed all of western culture. Finally both regimes commonly labeled anybody who didn't agree with the official regulations and taste as criminal enemies of the state.

Regaining their lost freedoms did not come cheap for these people. Millions paid for it with their lives.

Maybe I am oversensitive about these issues because of my life experience but I really believe that it is a sign of ignorance or over-security to think that our freedoms are a permanent gift, without daily obligations, that nothing will happen to us if we bend our Constitution a little to satisfy a particular group or ideology.

The problem is that even in the most civilised societies the demagogues are always in wait, ready and testing. They are indefatigable and we will never entirely prevail over them. And that is OK.

But if we stop resisting them, they will prevail over us. And that is not OK.

If you open the door to censorship just a little, it never stays open just a little and the draft that follows is always more than chilling.

That's why the real hero of my film is not a person but the Supreme Court of the United States.

Our country (The United States) is the strongest country in the world not because it is the biggest or the most populous. Our country is the strongest because it is the freest. And if my film disturbs some people because they must digest its points through an uncomfortable character, then, I am sorry, I have to turn to a voice from the seventeenth century: John Milton of Paradise Lost fame writes in his "Areopagitika about the freedom of the press" something like this: if a stomach is unable to distinguish healthy food from a bad one, then it is the stomach who is sick.

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