Thursday, May 15, 1997
We can refuse to be hustled

The Cincinnati Enquirer

You know that "gawker's lag" you see after a big highway accident? Traffic slows and clogs while passing motorists try to catch a glimpse of gore. I've never understood why anybody would enjoy seeing someone in a body bag or gushing blood.

If I was the first one there and could do anything useful, I like to believe I would not be too squeamish to jump out of my car to help. But if a crowd is already there, including people trained to handle such emergencies, I'd stay out of the way.

And I wouldn't look.

Disgusted to death

When I notice somebody curbing his dog - even though it is my perfect right as a citizen to inspect the scene and glower if I see no evidence of an immediate cleanup - I don't watch. If I want to be disgusted to death, I'll go to New York and get somebody to throw up on my shoes in the subway.

Then there are your garden-variety flashers. Most women know that part of their thrill is our reaction. If we don't appear to notice, it takes all the fun out of it for them.

These are all the reasons I did not go to the corner of Fifth and Walnut streets Wednesday morning to see Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.

Sanitized and sanctified by Hollywood, he has come back to spit in our eye. Or probably another version would be that he has come to lift the veil of oppression from the eyes of poor Cincinnatians starved for the sight of a naked woman in handcuffs.

But I didn't have to look. So I exercised my right to stay away. Then two hours later I exercised my right to eat a turkey sandwich in public on Fountain Square, near the spot so admired by the Ku Klux Klan at Christmastime. Next to me was a pleasant young woman who told me she came downtown "to support Larry Flynt." She has a copy of the magazine, given to her by one of Mr. Flynt's bodyguards after she produced proof that she is 20 years old.

This is, she explained to me, a matter of free speech. I thought it might be easier for her to speak freely if she removed the stud from her pierced tongue, but I didn't exercise my right to say so. She told me it's important to stand up for what you believe, "but I can't tell you my name because my mother reads The Enquirer." She and her friends are amused by Mike Ellis. "Lunchtime entertainment," she says. But they listen politely.

Street preacher

Mr. Ellis clutches a black-leather-bound Bible, shouting the Gospel to the lunch-time crowd, something he does once a week when the weather is nice. "I hate to sound like a fair-weather preacher," he says, "but when it's cold nobody is here."

Just by coincidence, Wednesday was "Opening Day" for the street preacher, who drove downtown from his home in Florence. He did not see Mr. Flynt, who handed out 200 magazines to spectators before he went back to his hotel suite. Police were there, but nobody was arrested.

It was all over in about a half hour, according to Officer John Homan of the Cincinnati Mounted Patrol Unit, there with his partner, Beau, a chestnut gelding. Neither looked very oppressive. In fact, I got the idea that police were present to make sure that Mr. Flynt's rights were protected. And that nobody was hurt.

"People were pushing to try to get close to Larry Flynt," Joe Austin of Delhi Township told me. "Everybody wanted a magazine. I heard that one guy sold his later for $50."

Think of that: $50. I don't suppose Mike Ellis is in any danger of somebody wanting to scalp copies of the Scripture. And nobody asked for his autograph. Also, nobody told him that he couldn't talk about God on the square. Free speech.

"I really do care about the First Amendment," Mr. Flynt says. And I believe he is sincere about that. It has made him a very wealthy man. And I think that lurking inside that born-again crusader is the original businessman and hustler.

He won't pass out free copies of his magazine indefinitely. Eventually, he will try to sell his junk. Here. If it's illegal, it will be settled in court. He has plenty of lawyers, and he has rights. And we have the right to look away.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.