Significance: The ruling in this case allowed the press freedom to publish subject matter that some people find objectionable in order to protect free political speech. The issue at hand was whether a cartoon parody published by Hustler Magazine was libelous or not.
Larry Flynt, owner of Hustler Magazine, received First Amendment protection for his 1983 parody advertisement, “Jerry Falwell talks about his first time.” The cartoon was intended to resemble a Campari alcohol ad. Hustler’s ad suggested that Falwell’s first sexual experience was a drunken, incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse. It also suggested that he is a hypocrite who preaches exclusively while drunk. A small print disclaimer at the bottom of the page said, “Ad parody, not to be taken seriously.”
Falwell apparently did take it seriously. He sued Hustler and Flynt for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In 1984, the U.S. District Court for Virginia’s Western District dismissed the invasion of privacy claim because Falwell is a public figure. Hustler was found guilty of inflicting emotional distress and Falwell was awarded $200,000. The court ruled against Falwell on the libel claim.
The lower court found that the ad parody was not reasonably believable. Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the ad was a satire, and to allow a jury to punish satire would be to allow jurors to decide a verdict based on personal taste. In 1988, the Supreme Court reversed the emotional distress verdict and the award because the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit public figures from recovering damages for emotional distress.
This ruling was considered to be a victory for the press and was viewed as an endorsement of lively political debate. It is a modern day reaffirmation of the requirement that public figures prove actual malice instead of negligence in a libel suit.
Supporters of Falwell believed the ruling gave people such as Flynt permission to be offensive and obscene. Political cartoonists, however, welcomed the verdict. Many would have felt the need for self-censorship if the verdict had been rendered otherwise.