Hustler Magazine v. Falwell

Following is the case brief for Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, United States Supreme Court, (1988)

Case summary for Hustler Magazine v. Falwell:

  • In response to Hustler Magazine’s article questioning his soberness and morality, Jerry Falwell brought suit in federal district court claiming damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims.
  • The district court found for Falwell and Hustler magazine appealed the judgment to the Supreme Court.
  • The Court held that Falwell was a public figure and as a result of First Amendment protections, more than outrageous conduct had to be shown. The Court decided the correct standard to be applied, in intentional infliction of emotional distress claims by public figures, is actual malice.

Hustler Magazine v. Falwell Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Jerry Falwell was a nationally known minister and active commentator on both political and public issues. Hustler Magazine printed a parody article about Falwell inferring Falwell and his mother were incestuous and immoral drunks. In response, Falwell sued Hustler Magazine claiming damages for libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The federal district court found for Falwell on the emotional distress claim, awarding him damages in the amount of $150,000.

Procedural History:

The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s judgment. Hustler appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Public figures and officials must show actual malice in order to recover damages from intentional infliction of emotional distress from a publication.

Issue and Holding:

Can a public figure recover damages for a claim alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress if the public figure does not show actual malice? No.


The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal’s judgment.


Falwell is a public figure and cannot recover damages absent a showing of the actual malice set out in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). American citizens have the right to criticize public figures and measures. Public officials and public figures may naturally be subjected to “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks” as a result. Many states permit civil liability for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress where conduct is sufficiently outrageous. In contrast, public figures must prove more than outrageous conduct as citizens receive First Amendment protections related to speech. More than mere outrageous conduct must be shown.

The Court held that deciding otherwise would assign damage awards to political cartoonists for caricatures that play up the negative features of their public figures. As a result, Falwell’s argument that the parody should be punished since it is outrageous is rejected. Falwell is a public figure, who cannot recover damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotion distress absent a showing that the publication was made by Hustler with actual malice.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Concurring (White):

The holding in Sullivan, has little to do with the current case. However, the majority ultimately reached the correct judgment.


Hustler Magazine v. Falwell established that Public Figures could not recover damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress absent a showing of actual malice. Actual malice requires that the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true.

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