Legal Principle at Issue
Can a public figure recover damages for emotional distress because of an offensive parody?
The Supreme Court reversed the award of damages and prevented the parody from creating grounds for liability.
Hustler magazine parodied Jerry Falwell, a nationally-known minister and public commentator, in a cartoon that imagined Falwell recalling his first sexual experience with his mother in an outhouse. The cartoon included a disclaimer that it was an “ad parody not to be taken seriously.” Falwell received damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress from the trial court and the Fourth Circuit.
Importance of Case
A parody of a public figure must include a false statement of fact made with actual malice to incur tort liability. The Supreme Court reversed because Falwell was a public figure, and so covered by the New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) standard, which requires a false statement of fact made with actual malice. The Court noted, “The art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided.” Additionally, the concept of “outrageousness” was found to be simply too subjective a standard to impose tort liability upon.