Thanks to Ben for this abstract of the Supreme Court case which resolved the issues in Hustler Magazine, Inc. et al. vs. Jerry Falwell.
“Respondent, a nationally known minister and commentator on politics and public affairs, filed a diversity action in Federal District Court against petitioners, a nationally circulated magazine and its publisher, to recover damages for, inter alia, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from the publication of an advertisement “parody” which, among other things, portrayed respondent as having engaged in a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse. The jury found against respondent on the libel claim, specifically finding that the parody could not “reasonably be understood as describing actual facts . . . or events,“ but ruled in his favor on the emotional distress claim, stating that he should be awarded compensatory and punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioners’ contention that the “actual malice“ standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, must be met before respondent can recover for emotional distress. Rejecting as irrelevant the contention that, because the jury found that the parody did not describe actual facts, the ad was an opinion protected by the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution, the court ruled that the issue was whether the ad’s publication was sufficiently outrageous to constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Held: In order to protect the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern, the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit public figures and public officials from recovering damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress by reason of the publication of a caricature such as the ad parody at issue without showing in addition that the publication contains a false statement of fact which was made with “actual malice,“ i.e., with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true. The State’s interest in protecting public figures from emotional distress is not sufficient to deny First Amendment protection to speech that is patently offensive and is intended to inflict emotional injury when that speech could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved. Here, respondent is clearly a “public figure“ for First Amendment purposes, and the lower courts’ finding that the ad parody was not reasonably believable must be accepted. “Outrageousness“  in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression, and cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, form a basis for the award of damages for conduct such as that involved here.”