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

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

No. 86-1278

Argued December 2, 1987

Decided February 24, 1988

485 U.S. 46


Respondent, a nationally known minister and commentator on politics and public affairs, filed a diversity action in Federal District Court against petitioners, a nationally circulated magazine and its publisher, to recover damages for, inter alia, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from the publication of an advertisement "parody" which, among other things, portrayed respondent as having engaged in a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse. The jury found against respondent on the libel claim, specifically finding that the parody could not "reasonably be understood as describing actual facts . . . or events," but ruled in his favor on the emotional distress claim, stating that he should be awarded compensatory and punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioners' contention that the "actual malice" standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, must be met before respondent can recover for emotional distress. Rejecting as irrelevant the contention that, because the jury found that the parody did not describe actual facts, the ad was an opinion protected by the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution, the court ruled that the issue was whether the ad's publication was sufficiently outrageous to constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Held: In order to protect the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern, the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit public figures and public officials from recovering damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of the publication of a caricature such as the ad parody 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. The State's interest in protecting public figures from emotional distress is not sufficient to deny First Amendment protection to speech that is patently offensive and is intended to inflict emotional injury when that speech could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved. Here, respondent is clearly a "public figure" for First Amendment purposes, and the lower courts' finding that the ad parody was not reasonably believable must be accepted. "Outrageousness"

Page 485 U. S. 47

in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors' tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression, and cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, form a basis for the award of damages for conduct such as that involved here. Pp. 485 U. S. 50-57.

797 F.2d 1270, reversed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 485 U. S. 57. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Primary Holding

The First Amendment protects parodies of celebrities or other public figures, even if they are aimed to cause distress to their targets.


A parody ad in Hustler Magazine, which was known for mature and explicit content, featured a fake interview with fundamentalist Protestant minister Jerry Falwell. The magazine based the parody on a Campari advertising campaign that consisted of alleged interviews with celebrities in which they talked about their first time drinking Campari, while using wordplays and double entendres to suggest that they were talking about the first time that they had sex. In Hustler's parody ad, the fake Falwell talked about having sex with his mother in an outhouse. The magazine was careful to include a disclaimer at the bottom of the page to remind readers that it was a parody, and it also listed the ad as "fiction" in its table of contents.

Not at all amused, Falwell brought a claim on three causes of action: invasion of privacy, libel, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. The first cause of action dropped out through summary judgment, while the second cause of action was rejected by a jury because the ad was clearly marked as a parody. However, the jury found for Falwell on the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, for which he received $150,000 in damages.

Procedural History

US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 797 F.2d 1270 (4th Cir. 1986)

Affirmed. The magazine had argued on appeal that the 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan should require plaintiffs who are public figures to show actual malice in claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as libel or defamation claims. The Fourth Circuit did not find that this standard was appropriate because the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, under Virginia law, requires proof that the defendant acted intentionally. Whether the statement was true did not need to influence the analysis.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia

The majority acknowledged that permitting broad First Amendment protections may lead to speech that is offensive or hurtful in its criticism of public figures. However, those protections remain in effect unless the speech is both false and made with actual malice. In other words, it must satisfy both the standard applied under state law and the standard in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan if the target is a public figure. This reasoning does not apply to speech that targets private citizens.

Rehnquist was not persuaded that the First Amendment should be cast aside when a parody was particularly outrageous, since this will be hard to apply consistently across many juries and jurisdictions. Something that is obscene does not receive First Amendment protection, but material that falls short of meeting the Court's definition of obscenity cannot be further separated into what is outrageous and what is acceptable.


  • Byron Raymond White (Author)


  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)

Case Commentary

This decision suggests that the malice standard for defamation claims does not apply effectively to parody, while elaborating what that standard means in other contexts.

The two protagonists of this case, Falwell and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, later became friends and toured colleges to debate the First Amendment and morality.

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