Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

PETITIONER:Hustler Magazine, Inc.
LOCATION:Hustler Magazine Headquarters

DOCKET NO.: 86-1278
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)

CITATION: 485 US 46 (1988)
ARGUED: Dec 02, 1987
DECIDED: Feb 24, 1988

Facts of the case

A lead story in the November 1983 issue of Hustler Magazine featured a “parody” of an advertisement, modeled after an actual ad campaign, claiming that Falwell, a Fundamentalist minister and political leader, had a drunken incestuous relationship with his mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued to recover damages for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Falwell won a jury verdict on the emotional distress claim and was awarded a total of $150,000 in damages. Hustler Magazine appealed.


Does the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protection extend to the making of patently offensive statements about public figures, resulting perhaps in their suffering emotional distress?

Media for Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 02, 1987 in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 24, 1988 in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

William H. Rehnquist:

And the third of this long series of cases No. 86-1278, Hustler Magazine et al. versus Falwell.

Respondent Jerry Falwell, a nationally known minister and commentator on public affairs sued petitioner Hustler Magazine and its publisher with petitioner Larry Flynt for the torts of liable on intentional infliction of emotional distress.

After an ad parody featuring Falwell’s name and picture was published in Hustler magazine.

This ad parody also contained a fictional interview with Falwell and which he allegedly described a drunken incestuous encounter with his mother in an outhouse.

After a trial, the jury held for hustler on a liable claims specifically finding that ad parody could not reasonably be understood as describing actual facts about Falwell or actually events in which he participated.

The jury found for Falwell on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, however, and awarded him both compensatory and punitive damages.

The Court of Appeals affirmed this award and we now reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The respondent contends that the First Amendment does not prevent a public figure from recovering damages for speech that meets the requirement of a state law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

That is speech that would intend to inflict the emotional distress was outrages and did in fact inflict serious emotional distress.

We think, however, that in the context of public debate about public figures, the First Amendment prohibits the finding of tort liability solely on the basis of an intent to injure or to harm.

The fact that the speech at issue is outrages is not a sufficient basis to subject it to tort liability.

For if you went ahead on this basis it would allow jurors to impose liability on the basis of their tastes or views and perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression.

We conclude that in order for a public figure or public affair shall to recover for the intentional infliction of emotional distress, you need to show additionally that the publication was made with actual malice that is with knowledge that it was false with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

Here it is clear the respondent is a public figure and therefore he may not recover on the basis that the Court of Appeals said he could.

Justice White has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Kennedy took no part.