The pornographer and First Amendment champion Larry Flynt will speak to students on the UNC campus tonight, Thursday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Student Union. Free tickets are still available at the Student Union box office.

Flynt’s public image received a major positive makeover when he was portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Milos Forman’s 1996 film The People Vs. Larry Flynt, which dramatized Flynt’s battle for press freedom in the face of a lawsuit brought by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who had been the subject of a parody in the pages of the Flynt-published Hustler magazine.

Flynt’s UNC address is the keynote event of a two-day symposium on the First Amendment sponsored by the First Amendment Law Review of the UNC School of Law. Two First Amendment and communications scholars will take the stage with Flynt after the speech for a panel discussion and audience Q&A session: Clay Calvert, professor at University of Florida, and Robert Richards of Penn State University.

The Indy caught up with Flynt by telephone last week.

Independent Weekly: What did you make of the Supreme Court’s recent decision involving corporate spending in elections, which has been presented as a major First Amendment issue?

Larry Flynt: A terrible thing. We know the system is corrupt because of money, but this just opened the floodgates for more money to come in. The only winner is corporations, and I think that’s sad for the American people.

What reaction do you anticipate to your participation in the symposium, and at this point in your life and career, what is your reaction to controversy?

Oh, controversy, I don’t care about that. I speak on college campuses all over the world, and that’s where I feel the most comfortable. That’s where I feel I have the most influence, because these are the people who are going to be running the country.

Given your work exposing Republican sex scandals, what do you make of the numerous scandals involving Democrats, such as John Edwards?

We’re an equal-opportunity offender, you know. A lot of people like to say that we’re just out to expose people’s sex lives. That’s not true. It’s hypocrisy we hate. And hypocrisy is very prevalent in American politics. It’s the one thing that threatens our entire system.

Do you feel Edwards’ actions rendered him unfit for office?

I think it says a lot about his character. Look, I can understand a man having a mistress, or a man might have an affairI don’t think that’s necessarily disqualifies you from public office, though you can argue about it. But you have to admit it was pretty sleazy, the whole mess.

Do you feel America has become a more or less conservative nation over the past few decades? Would this be a better country if someone like, say, John Kennedy couldn’t get elected because of his extramarital affairs?

They [politicians’ affairs] are just more publicized recently than they were then. America’s still a divided country. I don’t believe it’s generalized; it’s straight down the middle.

What do you feel is the most pressing issue of free speech in America right now?

The most pressing issue is that we take those civil liberties for granted. We’re born into a culture where we can take free speech for granted, and you’re being very naïve when you do that. It’s something we had to fight hard to get, and we have to fight hard to keep it, because it’s the politicians and the press who have the power. They’ll set you up.

What is your take on the issues of free speech opened up by the Internet? Some might argue it’s opened up a whole new set of issues.

I don’t think so. The issues are always there. The biggest right that any nation can afford [to give] its people is the right to be left alone, and I think most Americans feel that way. They want to be left alone.

How has the Internet affected your business, and how have you adjusted? What’s your take on the copyright infringement proliferated by various “tube” sites and torrents?

We’ve had to adjust. We adjusted years ago by putting up a Web site. Technology’s a part of all our lives, and you need it, you know, to survive. If you decide that you’re not going to employ technology, such as the Internet, and try to maximize its use in your business, you’re not going to be around very long.

You’ve fought for greater sexual openness and less hypocrisy in society. Is the current state of things, with rampant free material and sex tapes on the Internet, what you had in mind?

Sex is part of humanity, you know? It’s been around for 8,000 years, and there’s so many different ways you can do it. There’s so many people with so many different hang-ups, it’s a wonder that we’re not worse off than we are.

I liked to say at the beginning that Moses freed the Jews, Lincoln freed the slaves and I freed all the neurotics, so … most people who have trouble dealing with their sexuality, they are neurotic and they really need help, because they’ve got nothing to be afraid of.

I recently read a piece in Details that cited a study saying that something like 90 percent of children between 8 and 16 have seen a pornographic image online. Would you say that’s a good state of affairs or not?

Well, look. I’ve had guys come up to me when I’m doing singings on book tours and such, and one guy said to me, he got my autograph and said, “I wanted to thank you for helping me make it through puberty.” [Laughs] He said his first copy of Hustler was his father’s, he found it in the trunk of his father’s carhe was 8 years old.

Well, I don’t think Hustler is a magazine for kids. I don’t think they should have it. But the fact that it might fall into the hands of kids, of someone underage … well, you’ve got many different reasons to reflect.

There’s certainly a greater range of material and access to it out there, but do you feel there’s necessarily a greater openness and willingness to discuss sexuality in American culture?

Oh, much more today than there’s ever been. I’ll tell you an interesting story, which was not publicized, but we help a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money and get busted for obscenity and such.

There was an obscenity case in Nashville, Tenn., about two years ago, involving some rough stuff. The jury was 12 women, average age 60. You thought there would be a conviction for sure! After 20 minutes [of deliberation] they let the guy go. One of them said, “Look, I’m not into that, it’s not my cup of tea, but I don’t think I have the right to tell anybody what they can read or not read.”

What are you most proud of in your career, and what is your biggest regret?

I don’t know. For most of my adult life, I’ve been putting out censorship fires all over the country. I think the times I’ve helped the First Amendment, history will remember me kindly for those. Regrets? I wish I would have worn a bulletproof vest when I went to trial in Georgia. I wouldn’t be in a wheelchair today.