485 U.S. 46 (1988), argued 2 Dec. 1987, decided 24 Feb. 1988 by vote of 8 to o; Rehnquist for the Court, White concurring, Kennedy not participating. In a parody that appeared in Hustler magazine the prominent fundamentalist evangelist Reverend Jerry Falwell was depicted as a drunk in an incestuous sexual liaison with his mother in an outhouse.
A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia found that the parody was not libelous, because no reasonable reader would have understood it as a factual assertion that Falwell had engaged in the described activity. Nevertheless, the jury awarded $200,000 in damages on a separate count of “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” a cause of action that did not require that a false statement of fact be made.
The Supreme Court overturned the jury verdict and held that a public figure or official may not recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from a publication unless the publication contains a false statement of fact that was made with actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for truth or falsity). That the material might be deemed outrageous and that it might have been intended to cause severe emotional distress were not enough to overcome the First Amendment. Vicious attacks on public figures, the Court noted, are part of the American tradition of satire and parody, a tradition of speech that would be hamstrung if public figures could sue them anytime the satirist caused distress.
Rodney A. Smolla