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Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

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Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), was a tort case involving claims of libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and satire and parody of public figures as protected free speech.

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Contents

Summary of Case Facts

A Hustler Magazine story featured noted fundamentalist minister and political leader Jerry Falwell in a mock campaign advertisement. The advertisement claimed that Falwell had a drunken, incestuous relationship with his own mother in an outhouse. The mock advertisement was featured in the magazine’s table of contents as “Fiction; Ad and Personality Parody,” and contained small print at the bottom of the ad stating, “Ad parody – not to be taken seriously.” Falwell sued Hustler for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Issue

Does Freedom of Speech guaranteed by the First Amendment offer protection to the making of offensive statements about public figures, even if it could result in causing said public figure emotional distress?

Holding and Law

Yes. The court unanimously held that public figures such as Falwell could not recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress unless they could demonstrate that the offending publication made a false statement of fact with “actual malice” (false statements of fact made in knowing or reckless disregard for the truth). The court mentioned the importance of protecting satire and parody as speech, as it had a long-standing history in this country and was intended to be protected by the Founding Fathers. The court opined that the interest of protecting free speech far outweighed the state’s interest in protecting public figures from offensive speech, provided that offensive speech could not be construed to be stating actual facts.

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