Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46; 108 S. Ct. 876; 99 L. Ed. 2d 41 (1988)

Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46; 108 S. Ct. 876; 99 L. Ed. 2d 41 (1988)

Facts—In a district court Jerry Falwell, a nationally known minister, sought to recover damages for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from an advertisement “parody” that portrayed him in a drunken incestuous tryst with his mother in an outhouse. This “parody” featured in Hustler magazine was modeled on an advertisement for Compari Liqueur that played on the double entendre of “first times.” Falwell, claiming an invasion of privacy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress, asked for libel damages. The District Court discounted the libel and privacy claims but accepted the argument based on emotional distress, which the United States Court of Appeals upheld

Question—May a public figure recover damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress as a result of a parody?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (8–0). The state’s interest in protecting Falwell from emotional distress was insufficient to deny First Amendment protection. “The First Amendment recognizes no such thing as a ‘false’ idea.” Criticism of public figures will not always be reasoned or moderate. They likely are subject to vehement and caustic attacks. This does not mean all speech is immune. Under the Sullivan doctrine we have held that a speaker is liable for reputational damage caused by a defamatory falsehood but only if the statement was made ‘with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’” Although falsehoods have little value, they are nevertheless inevitable in free debate even “when a speaker or writer is motivated by hatred or ill-will.” To hold otherwise cartoonists would continually be subject to suits—because “the art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or even handed, but slashing and one sided.” Outrageous speech in political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it, which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors tastes or their dislike of a particular expression.

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