My favourite case: protection for satire or parody upheld in famous ruling
The US right to free speech allowed a porn magazine to write a satirical piece about a televangelist’s sex life
What is your favourite case?
My favourite legal case is Hustler Magazine v Falwell, a United States Supreme Court decision from 1988.
The case is probably best known as the climax to the biopic The People v Larry Flynt.
Mr Falwell was a charismatic Christian and a televangelist. Mr Flynt was a self-made millionaire publisher mainly of pornographic magazines; the most famous being Hustler.
In the late 1970s Hustler magazine printed a satirical piece, which was a parody of an advertisement for the alcoholic drink Campari, in which various celebrities talk about their “first time” with the intentional double-entendre implying the article relates to their first sexual experience, when in fact it discussed their first time drinking Campari.
In the parody Hustler took a swipe at Falwell by indicating his first time was not just of an alcoholic nature but also incestuous with his mother who, they said, passed out drunk. Falwell sued for defamation.
A successful defamation case is notoriously difficult to achieve in the United States because of the constitutional protection of freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. If the defendant can show an absence of malice, the plaintiff’s case will fall.
In the lower courts Falwell was able to convince the judge and jury that, because of the nature of the satire used in the Hustler magazine – that the publisher, ie Flynt, had taken a deliberate step to cause him (Falwell) both personal distress and harm – it showed malice in the publication of the satire.
Flynt was found liable in front of the jury and appealed, first to the Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court held in favour of Flynt and Hustler magazine. The court stated that Falwell was a public figure and relied on his public characteristics, particularly his religious outlook, to further his business and, as such, was open to satire and ridicule, which should be protected by the constitutional guarantee on freedom of speech.
So, parodies of public figures, which could not reasonably be taken as true, are protected against civil liability by the First Amendment, and any intention to cause emotional distress was irrelevant.
The issue of malice did not arise. Hustler had a right to say whatever it liked, no matter how unpleasant, as long as it was clearly satirical and about a public figure.