Larry Flynt, controversial porn publisher who pushed limits of free speech, dead at 78

Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt Jr., the self-described "smut peddler who cares" who used his pornography empire and flair for the outrageous to push the limits of free speech, has died at the age of 78.

Hustler publisher often aggravated critics, found himself in legal trouble

Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt has died at the age of 78. (Gary He/ Associated Press)

Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt Jr., the self-described "smut peddler who cares" who used his pornography empire and flair for the outrageous to push the limits of free speech, has died at the age of 78.

Flynt had been in frail health and died of heart failure at his Hollywood Hills home on Wednesday, his nephew Jimmy Flynt Jr. said.

The publisher suffered from a variety of health problems since a 1978 assassination attempt that left him a paraplegic.

Flynt loved to aggravate his critics with stunts, such as wearing a diaper made from an American flag to court, and was involved in a number of legal battles.

In the most famous, the U.S. Supreme Court made an important First Amendment ruling in favour of Flynt in a libel battle with evangelist Jerry Falwell.

Flynt had published a fake ad in Hustler that depicted Falwell saying his first sexual encounter had been with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued for $50 million US and won a lower court ruling but in 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court said the ad was a parody and protected by free speech standards.

In his heyday, Flynt lived a life that could have made Caligula blush. He wrote in his autobiography that his first sexual experience was with a chicken and told of having sex every four or five hours during a workday. After he was paralyzed, Flynt had penile implant surgery so he could continue to have sex.

Flynt created a business with an estimated turnover of $150 million at one point. As magazine circulation slipped, he stayed ahead of trends by investing in adult-content television channels, a casino, film distribution and merchandise.

Often in legal trouble

He said he never objected to being labelled a smut peddler as long as he was considered a First Amendment crusader, too.

"Just because I publish pornography does not mean that I am not concerned about the social ills that all of us are," he once told an interviewer.

Flynt was often in legal trouble, fighting obscenity charges or lawsuits, and he turned courtroom appearances into spectacles. His obscene outbursts once prompted his own lawyer to ask a judge to have Flynt bound and gagged.

In this 1997 photo, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, right, makes a point while appearing with Flynt on CNN's Larry King show in New York. Falwell sued Flynt over a fake ad depicting him in Hustler magazine but lost the case when Flynt appealed a lower court decision in U.S. Supreme Court. (Todd Plitt/Associated Press)

Born in 1942, Flynt grew up in poverty in Kentucky and Indiana and dropped out of school after the eighth grade. After stints in the armed forces and a General Motors plant, he and his brother opened the Hustler Club in Dayton, Ohio, in 1968. By 1973, it had grown to a string of strip clubs across the state, and Flynt put out a newsletter to promote them.

That newsletter evolved into Hustler magazine, his flagship publication, which came to be infamous for featuring explicit photos that made competitor Playboy seem mild by comparison. Virtually nothing was off limits on Hustler's pages, and Flynt made a point of publishing photos of women's genitalia.

At its peak, Hustler reportedly had a circulation of three million. Larry Flynt Publications also put out other porn magazines, as well as movies and mainstream magazines.

Flynt revelled in controversy. He made news by publishing pictures of a nude Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing in 1975 and a cover photo of a naked woman being fed head first into a meat grinder. In 1998 he offered $1 million to anyone who could catch high-ranking U.S. government officials in a sex scandal.

"My competitors always masqueraded their pornography as art," Flynt told the Cincinnati Post. "We never had any pretensions about what we did.... We have proved that barnyard humour has a market appeal."

Shot by white supremacist

In 1977, he was convicted in Cincinnati of pandering obscenity and participating in organized crime, but the verdict was overturned.

In 1978, Flynt was on trial on similar charges in Lawrenceville, Ga., when he and his attorney were shot. Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist, later confessed to the shootings, saying he was upset by Hustler's photographs of interracial sex, but he was never prosecuted.

Flynt was left paralyzed from the waist down by the shooting, restricted to a $17,000 gold-plated wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Flynt talks to reporters as he arrives to cast his vote in a recall election in 2003 in West Hollywood, Calif. (Rene Macura/Associated Press)

In October 2013, one month before Franklin was executed in Missouri for racially motivated murders not related to the Flynt shooting, Flynt wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that he did not believe in the death penalty and did not want Franklin put to death. He did want vengeance, however.

"I would love an hour in a room with him and a pair of wire cutters and pliers so I could inflict the same damage on him that he inflicted on me," Flynt said.

His life was the basis of the 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, which starred Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love and was based in part on Flynt's Supreme Court case.

Flynt was a Democrat whose magazines espoused liberal and libertarian views. He once ran for president against Ronald Reagan — promoting himself as "the smut peddler who cares" — and in 2003 campaigned for governor of California.

In 1977, he converted to evangelical Christianity at the urging of Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of President Jimmy Carter, but renounced those beliefs the following year after the Georgia shooting.

Flynt's 1996 autobiography was titled An Unseemly Man: My Life as a Pornographer, Pundit and Social Outcast.

He was married five times and had four surviving children.

With files from The Associated Press