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Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell Case, 1988 Essay

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Updated: Apr 13th, 2021

Case Citation

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988).


In November 1983, an issue of Hustler Magazine presented a parody based on an advertisement depicting Campari Liqueur, which also had the name and image of the interviewee. The advertisement was entitled, Jerry Falwell, talks about his first time. Specifically, the advertisement parody was aimed at copying other similar advertisements of the brand, Campari. The advertisements were centered on the notion of the ‘first time’ a person took the drink, Campari Liqueur (Flynt 1).

The ad satire depicted Jerry Falwell’s first time as an intoxicated, incestuous childhood sexual intercourse with his mother in the family outhouse (Flynt 1). The ad claimed that Falwell and his mother were highly intoxicated on Campari when the incestuous act took place.

This case referred to two polar opposites of the society but captured the American political events of the 1980s. Jerry Falwell was a well-known, respected, noble televangelist clergy focused on advancing public policy to reflect religious rights. On the other hand, Larry Flynt was a mocking pornographer with a flawed trait and ran a profitable publishing house. Flynt was eager to go beyond the norm on various subjects, from politics to sex, using his satirical language (Gutterman 1).

Not amused by the parody, Jerry Falwell sued Larry Flynt and Hustler Magazine for emotional distress (Kang 583). Falwell claimed the invasion of personal privacy, libel, and intended statements to inflict emotional distress against him. Falwell was a staunch religious conservative and the organizer of the Moral Majority, which was a political advocacy union (Smolla 423). At the District Court and the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Falwell won the case because it was established that Flynt and Hustler Magazine had indeed violated Falwell’s privacy and damaged his reputation. In addition, the Court also argued in favor of the respondent’s claim on intentional infliction of emotional distress (Kang 582). As such, the Court awarded Falwell compensatory damages of $ 100,000 and an additional $ 100,000 in punitive damages against Larry Flynt, the publisher and Hustler Magazine.

The suit emanating from the published satire carried in the Hustler Magazine in which the Reverend was portrayed as having illicit sex with his mother was never considered defamatory, not privacy invasion, and not legally lewd. The Fourth Circuit, however, argued that the parody met all characteristics of the tort of “intentional infliction of emotional distress” (Smolla 423). In addition, the script clearly indicated that the publisher planned to cause emotional distress on the respondent. Therefore, the award of the damage did not go against the First Amendment. In essence, Larry Flynt and Hustler Magazine were fined $200,000 for their wicked, dirty satire or joke. That is, no rational individual would consider the satire as true.

The respondent won the case, but Larry Flynt appealed. As such, the case proceeded to the US Supreme Court because of its constitutional insinuation. The Supreme Court reviewed the case. The Supreme Court totally dismissed the ruling of the lower Court in February 1988. It argued that although the joke was in bad taste, Larry Flynt and Hustler’s satire were protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and the press.

One must recognize that the advertisement contained a disclaimer printed in small letters at the bottom of the page. It read, “Ad parody—not to be taken seriously” (Warshaw 439). In addition, Hustler Magazine‘s table of contents also clarified the advertisement as “Fiction; Ad and Personality Parody” (Warshaw 439).


Afterward, the District Court provided a clear judgment on the invasion of the privacy of Falwell based on the claim. The jury failed to support the libel claim presented by the respondent but favored the deliberate cause of emotional distress to Falwell. The Fourth Circuit confirmed the decision against Larry Flynt and Hustler Magazine.

The Supreme Court, however, overturned the ruling and the award of $200,000 for compensatory damages and punitive damages.


This case established the role of the First Amendment in protecting freedom of speech and press in cases where such speech could cause emotional distress on a public figure, specifically when such a speech is a parody, does not reflect facts, and a rational person cannot interpret it otherwise about that public person.

Therefore, the case shows that any awards of damages for the intended cause of emotional distress to the public figure as a victim of satire is not protected with the provisions of the First Amendment freedom of speech and press.

In short, the case clarified the issue of whether the press was entitled to publish a satire about an individual, specifically a public figure who is passionately engaged in the discourse and resolution of vital public affairs. Alternatively, the press can still carry such content about famous individuals based on how they influence various spheres of society and issues of concern.


After the appeal, the US Supreme Court reversed the decision of the District Court. The Supreme Court established that any attempts to uphold the ruling of the lower courts would negatively impact any political parody. Public figures and public servants could not be compensated in cases involving emotional distress, particularly when they could not demonstrate that a press content was done knowingly with the intent of actual wickedness. A satire, while undoubtedly could be in bad taste, is not viewed as malicious. As a result, it was not possible for such persons to recover based on the tort of the intended cause of emotional distress when published materials are considered. Such a public figure is required to prove that a publication is indeed intentional and bears false statements of facts presented with the real malice intended. That is, the knowledge that the publication is false or reckless with disregard of facts must be presented.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered this opinion.


The most vital aspect of this case is to comprehend how the Court viewed the status of the Reverend and his influence on the public. That is, if the respondent was an ordinary figure or a private person, possibly, then the right of privacy would have prevailed, and there would be a decision to recover for the intentional emotional distress caused. In this case, however, Falwell was a public figure, and, therefore, he had no case that could succeed in the defamation case nor the intended emotional distress claim.

The Supreme Court applied the First Amendment to overturn the ruling of the District Court. The First Amendment is specifically defensive of freedom of speech and press freedom because they are issues of public interests and concerns.

The Court recognized that any tough political discourse was bound to result in a critical speech regarding a public figure. In this case, Larry Flynt could have been only liable for reputational damages caused after the publication of the material if the content were based on false knowledge or if the author could have recklessly dismissed whether it was true or false. In the case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Court established such findings for only defamatory misrepresentation of facts that lead to reputational damage. Hence, false statements do not have any values, but they could feature prominently in the free discourse, and any stringent liability rule could have resulted in unnecessary drawbacks on free speech.

The Court had to establish the minimum threshold for the actual malice intended against a public figure. Any ruling that could have favored the claim of intended cause of emotional distress would have ‘frozen’ the role of political satirists and cartoonists. These artists have shaped public and political discourse in a fundamental way.

Therefore, in the absence of the ‘actual malice’ threshold, political cartoonists and satirists or advertisement parodies have sufficient protection under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and press. The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the lower court because the ad parody published could not realistically be assumed as presenting facts about Reverend Jerry Falwell.


The case was more concerned with the determination of the actual malice standard against a public figure, which the press must contain before any damages – defamation, and libel can be considered.

The case has provided an opportunity for comedians, cartoonists, and commentators, such as Jon Stewart and David Letterman, to make fun of public figures, public policies, and people (Gutterman 1).


Justice White concurred in the judgment by observing that New York Times Co. v. Sullivan did not have much in common with this case because the jury established that the ad satire had no assertion of facts (Cornell University Law School 1).


There was no dissenting.

However, critics of the Supreme Court ruling have presented their opinions. Kang had referred to the decision as to the “Worst Supreme Court Case Ever” (582 – 583). Given the emotional damage, the issue was most likely to cause, Kang argued that one would expect the Supreme Court to uphold the decision of the lower court. The author presents three reasons to back his claims. First, based on moral indifference, the Supreme Court made public figures, politicians, and other prominent persons inexcusably vulnerable to emotional damage. Hence, it failed to protect the minimum expected for moral decency. Second, the opinion of the Court was a sham but was not atrocious. Finally, the Court’s decision has led to some flawed arguments by academics, who assert that the decision was exceptionally reasonable and a sound win for the Enlightenment.


In this case, the Supreme Court was unanimous in its decision, 8-0 votes. Hence, the award of $200,000 to Falwell was overturned. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and press. Hence, when an ad parodies a public figure by presenting claims, which no rational individual could consider as true, then that public figure cannot win a case based on invasion of privacy, intended cause of emotional harm, and/or libel.

The freedom to express one’s opinion goes beyond individual liberty and, therefore, good into itself, but it also reflects the fundamental goal of the search for truth for a functional society.

Works CitedюююЮ,,

Cornell University Law School. “HustДler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell.” n.d. Web.

Flynt, Larry. “The porn king and the preacher.” Los Angeles Times. 2007. Web.

Gutterman, Roy S. “Hustler v. Falwell: 25 Years of Protected Satire.” 2013. Huffington Post. Web.

Kang, John M. “Hustler v. Falwell: Worst Case in the World, maybe the Universe.” Nevada Law Journal. 12 (2012): 582-590. Print.

Smolla, Rodney A. “Emotional Distress and the First Amendment: An Analysis of Hustler v. Falwell.” Arizona State Law Journal (1988): 423-474. Print.

Warshaw, Robert G. “Copyright Infringement: All is Fair as Falwell Hustles Flynt.” Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review 7 (1987): 439-451. Print.

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