The Supreme Court today overturned a $200,000 award won by evangelist Jerry Falwell against Hustler magazine and its publisher Larry Flynt, extending the legal protections for parody and satire, even when they are pornographic.
The court unanimously ruled that even pornographic spoofs about a public figure enjoy the free-speech protections of the Constitution's First Amendment if those spoofs could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the person.
The justices stripped Falwell of the award he had won for "emotional distress" caused by an advertising parody in Hustler.
"Outrageousness 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," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.
"An 'outrageous' standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience," he said.
Flynt said of the court decision today, "I'm excited, absolutely delighted. Even though the suit had no merit in the beginning, I still spent over $1 million in attorney's fees. There is no way to get those back. It's what you call paying to defend the First Amendment."
Falwell, a Baptist minister and founder of an organization known as the Moral Majority, said in a statement reacting to the decision, "I fully appreciate the deep concerns the court has shown for the sacredness of the First Amendment. However, I respectfully disagree with their ruling. Just as no person may scream 'Fire!' in a crowded theater when there is no fire, and find cover under the First Amendment, likewise, no sleaze-merchant like Larry Flynt should be able to use the First Amendment as an excuse for maliciously and dishonestly attacking public figures as he has so often done."
Falwell's lawsuit arose out of a full-page "ad parody" that appeared in the November, 1983, and March, 1984, issues of Hustler, a sexually explicit magazine.
Featuring a photograph of Falwell, the ad purportedly quotes him discussing a sexual encounter with his mother and describing himself as a habitual drunkard.
At the bottom of the page in small print readers are told that the ad is a parody "not to be taken seriously."
Sought $45 Million
Falwell charged Hustler and Flynt with libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He asked for $45 million in damages.
A federal jury in Roanoke, Va., in late 1984 ruled that the ad did not libel Falwell, and the presiding judge threw out the invasion-of-privacy allegation. But the jury ruled for Falwell on his emotional-distress allegation, and awarded him $200,000. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the award, but today's decision threw it out.
In today's decision, the court noted that "graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate."
The court's vote was 8 to 0. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who joined the court last Thursday, did not participate in the decision.
In another decision announced today, the court expanded the power of communities to impose rent controls, ruling that hardships to tenants may be considered when landlords seek rent increases.
By a 6-2 vote, the justices upheld a San Jose, Calif., ordinance that has been attacked as a "Robin Hood" law that steals from the rich to pay the poor.