Hustler Magazine v. Falwell

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In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the United States Supreme Court held, in a unanimous 8-0 decision (Justice Anthony Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case), 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 $200,000 in damages by a lower court.


Court ruling[edit]


Rehnquist, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia
  • We conclude that public figures and public officials may not recover for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of publications such as the one here at issue without showing, in addition, that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with "actual malice," i.e., with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true. This is not merely a "blind application" of the New York Times standard, see Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374, 390 (1967); it reflects our considered judgment that such a standard is necessary to give adequate "breathing space" to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
  • ...for reasons heretofore stated, this claim cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, form a basis for the award of damages when the conduct in question is the publication of a caricature such as the ad parody involved here. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly Reversed.


  • As I see it, the decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), has little to do with this case, for here the jury found that the ad contained no assertion of fact. But I agree with the Court that the judgment below, which penalized the publication of the parody, cannot be squared with the First Amendment.


  • Falwell is an important decision for free speech in this country. It continues the Court's well-established tradition of providing a high level of protection for those who comment on public affairs, and makes it extremely difficult for politicians and public figures to recover against those who comment on their actions. It also provides protection for the long-established practice of political satire.
    • Lively, Donald E.; Russell L. Weaver (2006). Contemporary Supreme Court Cases: Landmark Decisions Since Roe v. Wade. Greenwood. p. 81. ISBN 9780313335143. 
  • In 1988, the Supreme Court affirmed the freedom of cartoonists in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, making the history of editorial cartooning central to its decision. While Hustler v. Falwell did not directly concern a political cartoon — but, rather, the parody of a magazine — the decision had ramifications for cartoonists.
    • Lamb, Chris (2004). Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons in the United States. Columbia University Press. p. 189. ISBN 9780231130660. 
  • It would be misleading to say that Hustler v. Falwell extended the scope of First Amendment speech protections. What the Supreme Court did, essentially, was to preserve the scope that already existed, which they did by rejecting an effort by the Appeals Court to allow a public figure, absent a finding of libel, to recover on a claim of emotional distress.
    • Menand, Louis (2003). American Studies. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 227. ISBN 0374529000. 
  • As the United States Supreme Court declared in the landmark case of Hustler v. Falwell, an advertising parody which portrayed the leader of the Moral Majority as having engaged in a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his mother, could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about him.
    • Sadurski, Wojciech (1999). Freedom of Speech and Its Limits. Springer. p. 217. ISBN 0792355237. 
  • Hustler Magazine v. Falwell is a classic First Amendment case. Its antagonists could have been selected by central casting to embody the fundamental constitutional tension between anarchic self-expression and strict civic virtue.
    • Post, Robert (1995). Constitutional Domains: Democracy, Community, Management. Harvard University Press. pp. 121-122. ISBN 0674165454. 

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