The First Amendment protects speech on matters of public interest quite heavily. The case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan established that a public figure could hold a speaker liable for damage to public image caused by a published parody only if the statement was made with false knowledge. However, the ruling for the case Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Falwell is not consistent with the ruling in the Times case or with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This case brief will discuss Hustler v. Falwell and why this case is inconsistent with constitutional rules.
In 1988, an issue of the Hustler Magazine (Petitioner) published a sexual parody of an advertisement for Campari Liqueur that made fun of nationally known minister Jerry Falwell(Respondent). The parody was entitled “Jerry Falwell talks about his first time.” The parody attacked Falwell’s morals by stating that his “first time” was with his mom in an outhouse while he was drunk. Hustler Magazine included a disclaimer at the bottom of the advertisement that said “ad parody-not to be taken seriously.” The magazine’s table of contents also grouped the ad in the “Fiction; Ad and Personality Parody” category. The ad was obviously not supposed to be taken as truth. Still, Jerry Falwell sued for libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The jury awarded damages to Jerry Falwell on behalf of the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but not on the defamation claim.
The question that this case brings up is whether or not the First Amendment should protect speech that is made to cause emotional distress on a public figure or not. Even if the speech is clearly stated to be only for entertainment purposes only, should a public figure receive damages for emotional distress caused by a parody? While the case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, established that “a public official must show that what was said against them was made with actual malice-with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth,” this case didn’t submit to the same standard. The parody in Hustler Magazine was not defamatory, was not an invasion of privacy and wasn’t legally obscene. However, the Fourth Circuit argued that the parody satisfied all elements of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Since Flynt was intentionally trying to inflict distress on Falwell, according to the courts, they argued that the award of damages were not in conflict with the First Amendment. Therefore, the parody cost Hustler Magazine and Larry Flynt $200,00 in fines.
However horrible the Hustler’s parody was, the fact is Hustler v. Falwell is a case that conflicts with the First Amendment. Mr. Flynt had a right to express his sentiments on Falwell as a hypocrite who he dislikes because of the First Amendment. Even Mr. Falwell participated in political debates where false statements of facts are very common. If satire statements are also used by political cartoonists and satirists, then a magazine should’ve been able to include them in their publications as well. However, Hustler v. Falwell shows that the courts aren’t always consistent in their rulings. The Jury stated that they found little to no similarity between New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and Hustler. v. Falwell because the parody ad contained no assertion of fact.
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the newspaper included an ad that supposedly was published to defame police commissioner L.B. Sullivan. While the courts ruled in favor of the newspaper, they ruled against Flynt in Hustler v. Falwell. These cases are extremely similar in nature but with entirely different rulings. Why? If parody is solely opinion based, the person stating the opinion should be immune from liability due to the nature of opinion. In order for the government to justify penalizing speech on matters of public concern, they have to show how the speech incites social harm. Allowing the emotional disturbance generated by the speech shouldn’t be enough to justify penalizing speech of any kind.
However, the courts did indeed rule against Hustler and he lost on his defamation claim because the jury concluded that nobody would believe that Hustler created the ad parody to describe real facts about Falwell. By using the actual malice standard of the Times case,knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth, the courts mixed the actual malice standard in the emotional distress context. However, the emotional distress tort has nothing to do with truth or falsity so the court’s conclusions do appear to clearly be biased and inconsistent with constitutional rules.