The Law School Authority

Hustler Magazine and Larry C. Flynt v. Jerry Falwell Case Brief

Summary of Hustler Magazine and Larry C. Flynt v. Jerry Falwell, 485 U.S. 46; 108 S. Ct. 876; 99 L. Ed. 2d 41, Supreme Court of the United States [1988]

Facts:  The inside front cover of the November 1983 issue of Hustler Magazine [a nationally distributed magazine] featured an advertisement parody for Campari Liqueur which featured various celebrities talking about their “first time.”  One of these parodies featured Jerry Falwell, a nationally known minister, saying that his “first time” was during a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse.

Although it was apparent after reading each ad that the “first time” was actually referring to the first time the celebrity had drank Campari Liqueur, the ads played on the sexual double entendre of the meaning for “first time.”  Additionally, the bottom of the ad contained the disclaimer, “ad parody – not to be taken seriously” and the ad was listed in the magazine’s table of contents as “Fiction; Ad and Personality Parody.”

Jerry Falwell sued Hustler Magazine and Larry Flynt for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

History:  The district court found for Hustler Magazine and Larry Flynt on the invasion of privacy claim and directed the jury to decide upon the libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims.  The jury found against Falwell on the libel claim, stating that the ad parody could not reasonably be understand as describing actual facts or events in which he participated, and for Falwell on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.  The jury awarded him $100,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 each in punitive damages from each petitioner.  Petitioners appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Issue: Did the First Amendment prohibit a public figure [i.e. Falwell] from recovering damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress?

Ruling:  Yes.  The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court.

Rule/Analysis:  The court found that the free speech guaranties of the First Amendment prohibit public figures, such as Jerry Falwell, from recovering from the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by publishing a caricature, as was in the ad parodies in Hustler magazine.  In order to recover from the tort, it must be shown that the ad which contained the false statement was made with actual malice, or with knowledge that the statement was false, or with reckless disregard as to whether it was true.

Summary:  There was no assertion of fact in the ad parodies and no reasonable person could believe them to be true.  Additionally, malice was not proven by the respondent. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, citing the First Amendment free speech guaranties and the rule of law that public figures cannot recover from the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress unless malice is proven.

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