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Hustler Magazine v. Falwell

Hustler Magazine v. Falwell
Argued December 2, 1987
Decided February 24, 1988
Full case name Hustler Magazine and Larry C. Flynt, Petitioners v. Jerry Falwell
Citations 485 U.S. 46 (more)
108 S. Ct. 876; 99 L. Ed. 2d 41; 1988 U.S. LEXIS 941; 56 U.S.L.W. 4180; 14 Media L. Rep. 2281
Prior history Judgment for plaintiff, W.D. Va.; affirmed, 797 F.2d 1270 (4th Cir. 1986); rehearing denied, 4th Cir., 11-4-86; cert. granted, 480 U.S. 945 (1987)
Subsequent history None
Argument Oral argument
Parodies of public figures which could not reasonably be taken as true are protected against civil liability by the First Amendment, even if intended to cause emotional distress. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia
Concurrence White
Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held, in a unanimous 8–0 decision (Justice Anthony Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case[1]), that the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them.

Thus, Hustler magazine's parody of Jerry Falwell was deemed to be within the law, because the Court found that reasonable people would not have interpreted the parody to contain factual claims, leading to a reversal of the jury verdict in favor of Falwell, who had previously been awarded $150,000 in damages by a lower court.


  • Case 1
    • Background 1.1
    • Court ruling 1.2
  • Aftermath 2
    • Dramatization 2.1
    • Flynt-Falwell relationship 2.2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6



Hustler's parody, depicted above, includes the unauthorized use of a publicity photograph of Falwell and a near-exact duplicate of the typesetting used in a concurrent Campari advertising campaign.[2]

While Hustler magazine has always been known for its explicit pictures of nude women and for what many consider crude humor,[3] the prominent fundamentalist Protestant minister Jerry Falwell objected to the parody ad the magazine printed in 1983 targeted at him, in which Falwell related having an incestuous encounter with his mother in an outhouse.[4]

The satire at issue was a takeoff of an advertising campaign for Campari, an Italian apéritif.[5] The real ads were tongue-in-cheek interviews with celebrities talking about their "first time".[6] The ads, which played off the double entendre in the headline (“X talks about his first time”), initially appeared to discuss the star’s first sexual experience before revealing that the discussion actually concerned the subject's first time drinking Campari.

The Hustler parody, created by writer Terry Abrahamson and art director Mike Salisbury,[7] featured a picture of Falwell, and a fictional "interview" in which "Falwell" describes his first sexual experience as occurring "with Mom" in an outhouse while both were "drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari."[8] In the spoof interview, "Falwell" goes on to say that he was so intoxicated that "Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation," that he decided to have sex with his mother since she had "showed all the other guys in town such a good time", and that they had intercourse regularly afterwards.[9] Finally, when asked if he had tried Campari since, "Falwell" answered, "I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit. You don’t think I could lay down all that bullshit sober, do you?" The ad carried a disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the page, reading "ad parody—not to be taken seriously."[10] The magazine's table of contents also listed the ad as "Fiction; Ad and Personality Parody."[11]

Falwell sued Larry Flynt, Hustler magazine, and Flynt's distribution company in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[12] Before trial, the court granted Flynt's motion for summary judgment on the invasion of privacy claim, and the remaining two charges proceeded to trial. A jury found in favor of Flynt on the libel claim, stating that the parody could not "reasonably be understood as describing actual facts about [Falwell] or actual events in which [he] participated."[13] On the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the jury ruled in favor of Falwell and awarded him $150,000 in damages.[13]

Flynt appealed to the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, rejecting Flynt's argument that the actual-malice standard of New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) applied in cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress where the plaintiff was a public figure, as Falwell concededly was. The New York Times standard focused too heavily on the truth of the statement at issue; for the Fourth Circuit, it was enough that Virginia law required the defendant to act intentionally. After the Fourth Circuit declined to rehear the case en banc, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Flynt's request to hear the case.

Court ruling

"At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one's mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions." The First Amendment envisions that the sort of robust political debate that takes place in a democracy will occasionally yield speech critical of public figures who are "intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large". In New York Times, the Court held that the First Amendment gives speakers immunity from sanction with respect to their speech concerning public figures unless their speech is both false and made with "actual malice", i.e., with knowledge of its falsehood or with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement. Although false statements lack inherent value, the "breathing space" that freedom of expression requires in order to flourish must tolerate occasional false statements, lest there be an intolerable chilling effect on speech that does have constitutional value.

To be sure, in other areas of the law, the specific intent to inflict emotional harm enjoys no protection. But with respect to speech concerning public figures, penalizing the intent to inflict emotional harm, without also requiring that the speech that inflicts that harm to be false, would subject political cartoonists and other satirists to large damage awards. "The appeal of the political cartoon or caricature is often based on exploitation of unfortunate physical traits or politically embarrassing events – an exploitation often calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal". This was certainly true of the cartoons of Thomas Nast, who skewered Boss Tweed in the pages of Harper's Weekly. From a historical perspective, political discourse would have been considerably poorer without such cartoons.

Even if Nast's cartoons were not particularly offensive, Falwell argued that the Hustler parody advertisement in this case was so "outrageous" as to take it outside the scope of First Amendment protection. But "outrageous" is an inherently subjective term, susceptible to the personal taste of the jury empaneled to decide a case. Such a standard "runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience". So long as the speech at issue is not "obscene" and thus not subject to First Amendment protection, it should be subject to the actual-malice standard when it concerns public figures.

Clearly, Falwell was a public figure for purposes of First Amendment law. Because the district court found in favor of Flynt on the libel charge, there was no dispute as to whether the parody could be understood as describing facts about Falwell or events in which he participated. Accordingly, because the parody did not make false statements that were implied to be true, it could not be the subject of damages under the New York Times actual-malice standard. The Court thus reversed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit.[14]



The People vs. Larry Flynt, a 1996 film directed by Miloš Forman starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt and Edward Norton as Flynt's lawyer Alan Isaacman, features the case prominently.

Flynt-Falwell relationship

After The People vs. Larry Flynt appeared, Falwell and Flynt began meeting in person to discuss philosophy. They visited colleges to publicly debate morality and the First Amendment, and exchanged Christmas cards and family photos. After Falwell's death in 2007 Flynt wrote, "the ultimate result was one I never expected ... We became friends".[15]

See also



  1. ^ Taylor Jr., Stuart (1988-02-25). "COURT, 8-0, EXTENDS RIGHT TO CRITICIZE THOSE IN PUBLIC EYE". New York Times. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  2. ^ Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988)
  3. ^ Christine Zuchora-Walske;  
  4. ^  
  5. ^ Mike Gerken;  
  6. ^ James Castagnera;  
  7. ^ Chicago Reader, January 30, 1997, Adam Langer "Too Lewd for Larry"
  8. ^ John M. Kang;  
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Paul Siegel (2007). Communication Law in America. p. 156.  
  11. ^ Robert G. Warshaw;  
  12. ^ Louis Menand;  
  13. ^ a b  
  14. ^ "Hustler magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988)". US Supreme Court. Find law. Retrieved 29 March 2012. 
  15. ^ Flynt, Larry (2007-05-20). "The porn king and the preacher". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 January 2015. 

Further reading

  • Brewer, Edward C. (2003). "Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell". In Parker, Richard A. (ed.). Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. pp. 264–280.  

External links

  • Text of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia  LII 
  • The OYEZ Project
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