Last Updated 31 Jan 2023

The Case “Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Falwell” and Impact on Future First Amendment Cases

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Jerry Falwell was a well-known Southern Baptist pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia, known for his teleministry (the use of television to share Christianity) and being a conservative activist. Hustler Magazine Inc., introduced in 1974, published by Larry Flynt, is an adult publication magazine. In 1983, one of the monthly issues of Hustler Magazine featured an “ad parody” advertisement for a liqueur brand using Falwell’s name and picture.

The advertisement read “Jerry Falwell talk about his first time”, with the use of “first time” being a play on words but meaning his first time trying the liqueur brand. This brand had done a series of celebrity interviews about each of their “first times” trying the liqueur before the Falwell ad was released. The alleged interview with Falwell that Hustler published stated his first time was during a drunken, incestuous relationship in an outhouse with his mother. At the bottom of the advertisement page, a disclaimer reading “ad parody- not to be taken seriously.” Falwell filed a suit against Hustler Magazine Inc. and Larry Flynt on three claims: libel/defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The court ruled against Falwell on the actions of invasion of privacy and also the claim of libel, ruling that a parody could not logically be believed as describing actual true facts or events. The court did rule in agreement with Falwell on the claim of emotional distress, expressing that he should be awarded $150,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the fourth circuit stated that the defendants are allowed the same first amendment protection rights on the claim of emotional distress as they were awarded on the defamation allegation.

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Followed by saying, the “actual malice” rule stemming from the New York Times v. Sullivan case may not be appropriate in the situation of an emotional distress claim. The court ruled that the standard was met by the state law requirement and the jury ruled that the defendants had acted intentionally and recklessly towards the plaintiff. The Supreme Court granted a judicial review regarding the appeals court’s decision because it proposed a logical question dealing with the First Amendment restrictions on free speech in order to protect people from intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell impacts future cases in respect to how the First Amendment protects the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress regarding public and private figures. The court compared this case to New York Times v. Sullivan. Falwell made a claim about intentional infliction of emotional distress which was not covered in the New York Times v. Sullivan case. This posed a new question as to whether a public figure had to prove “actual malice” for emotional distress claims as they do for defamation claims. The Supreme Court reviewed whether the ruling for the emotional distress claim was upheld by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Validated by New York Times v. Sullivan, not every speech directed against a public figure is protected by the First Amendment. A public figure can be awarded damages for defamatory content that hurts their reputation, being that there was knowledge that the speech was false or was published with reckless disregard. Falwell argued a different standard to be used to judge his emotional distress claim because the severe emotional distress he suffered rather than the damage to his reputation. He argued that as long as all the required information of the claim were met, that it was not necessary to address whether or not the speech was fact or opinion.

The Supreme Court disagreed. The ruling by the Court of Appeals was reversed, the court stating that public officials cannot recover damages for the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, followed by saying “without showing in addition that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with “actual malice” …” (pg 6). Meaning that the ad parody directed towards Falwell was protected because the advertisement could not logically be conceived as stating factual information.

The decision from this case affects future decisions that involve publishers being sued for publishing defamatory content when the speech cannot reasonably be perceived as factual. This case decision upholds the protection of publishers’ First Amendment rights. This case also justified the verdict in New York Times v. Sullivan and upheld the “actual malice” requirement. While others also argue that public figures should be able to recover damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress caused by the media, due to the fact of how the speech affects their emotional well-being.

A theory that could be applied in this situation is the marketplace of ideas, which claims the truth will surface from the competing ideas and the best will remain. In this case, the publication should be protected because the speech was considered to be so outrageous and far from the truth that it would not easily be believed. I agree with the court’s decision to reverse the verdict of the Court of Appeals due to the fact that other media outlets and publishers would fear whether to release content in the future and being faced with consequences. The media is a vital news outlet for citizens, and if the media were holding back information because of concern, the people would be neglected from receiving important information.


  1. Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), Supreme Court of the United States.
  2. “Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell.” Global Freedom of Expression, 27 June 2008,
  3. “Jerry Falwell.”, A&E Networks Television, 16 Apr. 2019,

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