Tonight at UNC-Chapel Hill, members of Feminist Students United handed out programs challenging the audience of pornographer Larry Flynt’s keynote address for the First Amendment Law Review to think deeply about pornography’s harmful effects on women, people of color, and low income people in particular, its harmful effects on everyone in general, and its contribution to our society’s rape culture.

Before Flynt’s address, several men passed out these programs to audience members lined up outside the Great Hall of UNC-CH’s student union. The program, a joint creation by members of FSU, asked the question: “Does Larry Flynt Have the Right to Speak?” and answered: “Absolutely.”

However, the program went on to ask the audience members to consider the violently sexist and racist content of Flynt’s porn industry. “Instead of having an abstract dialogue about ‘Freedom of Speech,'” the program says, “we must examine the content of his work, and its effects. Let’s start talking about how to move our sexual imaginations toward respect, toward empathy, toward connections based on equality, not domination.”

Though Feminist Students United acknowledge Larry Flynt’s legal right to speak, we feel it is important to ask deeper questions about exactly what he and his company are saying. Pornography represents the widespread acceptance of men’s domination over women in sexuality. Mainstream pornography uses society’s most racist and sexist stereotypes in its depictions of sexuality. How can a society truly be free and egalitarian when a man like Larry Flynt, who has created such works as “Barely Legal Cumming of Age” and “Big Phat Ghetto Azz All Greased Up,” is regarded as a hero of free speech and invited to speak at a public university? What does it mean that many young boys learn about sexuality through films like “Gag Factor?” What does it mean that many women who appear in such videos as “ATM [ass to mouth] Guzzlers” are completely dehumanized and subjected to humiliation and violence in order to make a living?

The event itself, though posed as an open exchange of ideas wherein two moderators asked Larry Flynt several questions about his work around free speech, was instead yet another legitimation of pornography in mainstream society. The questions the moderators asked Flynt were simple and uncontroversial: “Do you feel mainstream media has gone soft?” “What do you think about Obama?” “Do you feel today’s politicians are hypocritical?”

His answers, though dismissive of conservatives, organized religion, and the recent rise of the populist “Tea Party,” revealed no acknowledgement of the effects pornography has on our society. Despite the desperate conditions capitalism places many women into, he insisted that his films have never exploited anybody; despite the epidemic of men’s violence against women that occurs in our culture, he insisted that no person has ever been harmed by his films. Of course, porn does not cause men to attack their partners, but can it really be said that erotic films depicting violent sex acts have no connection to sexist violence?

Finally, despite the introduction of tonight’s talk as a marketplace of ideas where conversation about free speech can take place in a manner befitting “high level academic discourse,” a member of FSU who asked a lengthy question during the audience Q&A session was told by the moderators to stand down.  He was interrupted by the moderators while he read his question.  When he continued to read his question, a police officer covered the microphone with his hand and threatened him with arrest unless he immediately asked Flynt the question.  Can an event where civil but opposing viewpoints are shouted down, and where one voice (the voice of the rich, white, pornographer) is the loudest, truly represent an egalitarian marketplace of ideas?

Pornography harms our friends, family, and loved ones. Feminist Students United condemns this distorted view of sexuality, and advocates the creation of an equal, compassionate, and respectful sexuality in its place.

Check out this post for updates on news coverage of FSU’s direct action at the Larry Flynt event.