Paul Cambria: Adult’s ‘Larger Than Life’ Freedom Fighter

Bob Johnson

There is something about Paul Cambria that completely belies any hint of sleaziness one might associate with the adult industry. It’s as though his mere presence immediately exorcises anything bad porn might represent.

It could be his confidence having been the de facto defender of First Amendment rights for a number of major adult companies including Vivid Entertainment, Hustler, Evil Angel and more. Or the fact that he’s now the captain charged with leading a virtual dream team to battle Measure B, Los Angeles County’s controversial mandatory condom use-on-porn shoots ruling.

Despite his First Amendment and criminal focus, he believes the major issues on the horizon for porn are piracy and unfair competition.

But more likely it’s because Cambria represents much more than the porn biz. From early beginnings defending industry pioneer Reuben Sturman in the days of “obscene” girlie magazines and VHS tapes, to his part in the headline grabbing obscenity acquittal of Evil Angel’s John Stagliano in 2010, Cambria has chalked up adult victories like no other lawyer. And it’s not just his courtroom acumen that sets him apart. He genuinely likes and cares for his clients. At the end of the Stagliano obscenity trial he said the Evil Angel founder was “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, in or out of the business,” adding that like his other clients, Sturman and Larry Flynt, Stagliano is a true devotee of the First Amendment.”

“They don’t hide behind it [the First Amendment], they stand in front of it,” he said in classic Cambria style.

Although he credits Stagliano’s courage, Cambria’s courtroom brilliance certainly helped close the deal. Friend and colleague, attorney Allan B. Gelbard recalls how after a key prosecution witness testified in a manner that either implicated the Judge in participating in the prosecution’s case, established the prosecutor had lied to her own witness, or showed the witness had lied, the defense team started to move for a mistrial. But Cambria, recognizing the catch-22 the testimony had created, advised the Judge that he intended to call the prosecutor as his first witness — a move that forced the judge to consider how to salvage the trial that, by that point, was clearly not going well for the prosecution. The Judge ordered the prosecutor to read an affidavit to the jury that established the witness had not been truthful, which only exacerbated the government’s ineptitude in the eyes of the jury.

But it’s not just adult that defines Cambria’s success. In fact, his mainstream work hands down outweighs his adult practice (by 95 percent according to his own accounts); he races cars and owns an upscale wood fire pizza restaurant. It’s a combination of macho smarts and the fearless “fuck you” attitude toward the censors of free expression that allows him to defend adult “outlaws” with a razor-sharp intellect.

Whatever that elusive air may be in reality, it’s Cambria’s talent as a senior partner of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria and member of the bar in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. that gives him the top-shelf credentials people want when faced with legal woes.

Perhaps Free Speech Coalition CEO Diane Duke, a colleague and friend since 2006, put it best: “He’s a larger than life figure.” And with chops that include numerous legal victories in both the adult and mainstream worlds (that included defending rocker Marilyn Manson, rapper DMX, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, and some Mafioso among many others), Cambria aptly fits the description.

The First Amendment crusader and criminal defense attorney has been practicing for what he quips is “let’s just say more than 25 years,” but what really spans more than four decades. He is one of less than 1,000 attorneys who’ve been on the peer publication Best Lawyers in America magazine list. In fact, he’s been named in every issue since its beginnings in 1988.

If that’s not enough, Cambria’s CV is a client’s dream. He was past president of the New York State Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, past chairman of the criminal justice section of the New York State Bar association and currently on the advisory committee for criminal law and procedure appointed by the chief Justice of the State of New York.

Cambria also sits on the executive board of the criminal justice section of the New York State Bar association, and has been named in Hall of Fame Lawyers, Who’s Who in the law, Super Lawyers, and in New York Magazine’s New York Area’s top lawyers.

The New York State Bar Association even gave Cambria the prestigious Outstanding Practitioners Award.

But despite his ferocious talent for the law, he also injects what Gelbard calls “good old Italian ball-busting wit.” He is awe inspiring as a criminal defense attorney. He has the uncanny ability to ease the pressure in the courtroom — specially if you’re the defendant,” Gelbard says.

So how did he begin his career as adult’s most sought-after hired gun?

Cambria graduated from the University of Toledo College of Law, first in a class of 286 students. He says he was fortunate to have an opportunity to be part of a “clinical” program that allowed him to be admitted to the bar as a student under the supervision of a public defender or district attorney. His defense of first amendment rights followed quickly when in 1975 he represented Screw newspaper publisher Al Goldstein in a Kansas obscenity case.

The Screw case then caught the attention of Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt who Cambia says called for a feature profile in defense of Goldstein. Flynt was so impressed with Cambria’s acumen he tapped him a year later to defend him when he was indicted for obscenity over Hustler.

“I first met Paul in 1976. He was a young lawyer right out of law school but I immediately recognized something about Paul — he was really good, so I hired him. Over the years he has just gotten better. Today he is without a doubt the best First Amendment lawyer in the country,” Flynt says.

Forty years later, Flynt is still singing Cambria’s praises. He says that lawyers are like doctors or plumbers — there are good and bad, and Cambria is one of the best. Cambria is hard to figure out, according to Flynt, because he holds things close to his vest and that’s what contributes to him being a great lawyer. Flynt says, “He’s smart and he’s quick on his feet. Me, with all of my legal problems I’ve always stuck with Paul. That says a lot about the kind of attorney he is.”

Duke agrees and points to his work with the FSC’s CAL/OSHA Task Force in 2010 when during brain-draining meetings he would take a complex issue and boil it down to two or three easily understandable sentences. “His ability to make a point successfully is uncanny. He’s smart, thinks on his feet and best of all he can deliver strong strategies to every challenge he faces,” Duke recounts.

The lawyer also worked with Duke on the FSC’s anti-Measure B campaign. Duke was elated that the FSC could call on Cambria considering that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation had much deeper pockets to hire top attorneys. “We needed some big guns to do battle and Paul was right there for us,” she says.

Another member of the task force team, Vivid Entertainment co-founder and chairman Steve Hirsch — a client of Cambria’s for more than 25 years — believes his understanding of First Amendment law is second to none. Hirsch says of the lawyer, “No one in our industry better represents our objectives and ideals better than Paul. This was first apparent to me when Paul represented Vivid when we were being prosecuted in Mississippi. His knowledge of the subject matter and ability to find common ground with prosecutors enabled us to avoid a lengthy and expensive trial. Since then I have seen him argue constitutional issues with great success on many occasions. There is no attorney I would rather have representing Vivid than Paul Cambria.”

Cambria’s concern for those shunned by mainstream was also evident the first time he and Hirsch met.

“My very first meeting with Paul was when I was in my late 20s and was a board member of the Free Speech Coalition. There was a problem with several of the first amendment attorneys not working together. I went to Chicago with a couple of other board members for a meeting with some of the attorneys. It turned out that the other board members didn’t want to talk and so it was up to me to be the voice of the industry.

“I was inexperienced at this and Paul picked up on my struggle and helped me get my messages across. It was shortly after this, that Paul was brought into several ongoing prosecutions, including ours,” Hirsch says.

The Vivid chief further recalled that when Vivid was being prosecuted in Mississippi he brought in a “dream team” of Cambria, H. Louis Sirkin and Michael Murray, with Cambria leading the charge. Hirsch says, “Paul headed the defense for us and crafted a favorable agreement. It was obvious to me that Paul was effective not only as a first amendment attorney but also as a master negotiator.”

Those early Vivid partnerships evolved over the years spawning what is probably one of Cambria’s most notable industry accomplishments — the legendary “Cambria List” — a de facto best practices of what to avoid when producing porn. But unbeknownst to most in the industry, the “List” was in fact not created by Cambria. He had some help.

“Some people think it’s about what I think of what should and shouldn’t be produced,” Cambria says, emphatically adding, “It’s not.”

He explained that Hirsch asked him to weigh in on what kind of content would most likely be prosecuted. He then gave Hirsch a list of about 10 items of what he felt he should not appear in Vivid’s productions like menstruation, coffins, religion, etc. But half of the list came from Hirsch himself, Cambria remembers.

“Hirsch wrote the ‘Cambria List’ across the top of the original list and gave it to his directors and producers. Those things were then picked up and considered Gospel. The fact is they are accurate, but I can’t take all of the credit, nor labeling it the ‘Cambria List,’” the attorney says.

Aside from defending the headline makers in adult like Vivid, Hustler and Evil Angel, Cambria also went to bat for Wicked Pictures, Doc Johnson, California Exotic Novelties, Metro, AVN, Playboy, Puritan, Bluebird, Naughty America and a host of others.

And although First Amendment issues have temporally abated for the lawyer, there are still nagging problems facing adult including the neverending 2257 record keeping saga, and now the fight to counter Measure B — Los Angeles County’s Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act — approved by voters last November that requires condom use and other protection for all porn productions shot in L.A. County as well as list of requirements by producers including complete blood-borne pathogen training in order to get a filming permit.

Albeit still worrisome to most content producers, Cambria believes that 2257 is not a major concern for the adult industry, pointing to recent challenges and victories by the FSC asserting that the law is unconstitutional and that it violates protections against unreasonable search and seizures.

“I can only think of a couple prosecutions, and its validity has recently been successfully challenged by my good friend [FSC counsel] Michael Murray,” Cambria says.

But Measure B could be something Cambria can once again sink his teeth into. He now leads another industry “dream team” of lawyers organized by Vivid to do battle against what’s becoming the hot button problem for adult. Vivid and two adult performers, Kayden Kross and Logan Pierce, filed their suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in January.

Along with attorneys Robert Corn-Revere and H. Louis Sirkin, the trio is seeking injunctive relief over enforcement of Measure B. Cambria says, “Measure B in my opinion violates the constitution on many levels as detailed in our lawsuit. More tragically I think it will divide the country where the actors will have no protections rather than working with the industry to follow testing and safety procedures which will protect the actors and be the most cast efficient. For the taxpayers and impose minimal burdens on protected speech. Measure B results in the exact opposite of what its sponsors say it is suppose to achieve.”

This case is right up Cambria’s alley, alleging that it violates First Amendment rights and due process, among others. And federal court is no stranger to the lawyer’s acumen. In the complaint Cambria stated that he was troubled by the law for a number of reasons including the possibility of a permit that could cost producers almost $11,000, and that the government’s sticking its nose into the creative aspects of a film by requiring condoms. He gave the example of shooting a “Pirates of the Caribbean” type of film based in the year 1730 and someone using a modern day condom as an interference with the creative process.

Cambria also demonstrated his First Amendment smarts and ability to think on his feet in a recent interview with The Daily Beast that called him porn’s “go-to lawyer.” He was characteristically quick to fire back at a question asking how forced condom use limits First Amendment expression.

He said there’s no referendum for First Amendment rights, and if that were true, the public would determine content of movies, speeches, and music. And in fact it’s the opposite. The First Amendment protects those in the minority when they might express something unpopular, Cambria noted. It protects the right to say what one feels.

Cambria told The Daily Beast, “There are several prongs to the argument. The First Amendment protects you to express yourself without any restraint prior to you expressing yourself. In other words, you can make a movie and you can distribute it before jumping through any government hoops. Now, it may be that the government takes the position it is obscene, and they’ll prosecute you for it. But they haven’t previously restrained you from the expression. The Supreme Court has said for years, and years, and years that in the First Amendment area there are no prior restraints. This statue imposes a prior restraint as follows: you must get a permit, you must have training in blood borne pathogens, and you must film the movie with a condom. Those are three incidents of prior restraint before you can do the expression. That is the first part.

“Next, they, the government, are now dictating to you how you have to film the movie. And they are dictating how part of that content will be. That is it will be sex with a condom. For example, if I am doing an adult movie about a husband and wife, and they are trying to conceive and they can’t. She gets the idea to just have sex with this bowling team and not tell him. One of those guys will get her pregnant, and they live happily ever after. I can’t make that movie, because they will have to wear latex condoms.

“That is all outside the final issue, which is if this is the least drastic means of accomplishing the government’s goal. This is what you have to prove in First Amendment issues dealing with content discrimination. Is this the least drastic means or is medical testing the least drastic means?”

But what about obscenity, a bugaboo that rears its head every so often with the Feds targeting a case in what seems to be the government’s way of not getting rusty? Cambria thinks the industry will see a decline in prosecutions because the adult public is much more sophisticated than they were 30 years ago. “The adult public clearly finds adult entertainment made by and exhibited to adults acceptable,” he says confidently.

As always, Cambria never appears rattled by what’s thrown at him or at the adult industry. Despite his First Amendment and criminal focus, he believes the major issues on the horizon for porn are piracy and unfair competition — hardnosed business problems that are decidedly less sexy than issues of freedom of expression, but nevertheless sore points that have, and could continue to cripple some businesses.

Savvy adult professionals would be wise to heed Cambria’s warning, not only because of his impeccable track record as an attorney but also because he is “one of us,” a man dedicated to freedom of expression.

Duke calls him an icon in our industry. “I honestly don’t know how he does what he does. He’s awe-inspiring. And I can call on him on any issue and he’ll get back to me,” Duke says.

What makes Cambria even more endearing and a bit of enigma is that with all of his accomplishments, victories and credentials, he doesn’t take himself that seriously. “He’ll be the first to laugh at himself,” Duke says. “He loves to laugh.”


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