WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that public figures who are the victims of a satirical attack--even one that is pornographic and "outrageous"--may not sue for damages, and it rejected a $200,000 judgment won by the Rev. Jerry Falwell against Hustler magazine.
Satire and parodies of public figures are protected by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment, the court declared, in bolstering other court precedents that severely limit legal action by well-known figures over public criticism.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, cited the nation's long tradition of permitting critics to lampoon politicians in print and in speech without fear of legal reprisals.
Peril to Cartoonists Cited
"Were we to hold otherwise (in this case), there can be little doubt that political cartoonists and satirists would be subjected to damage awards without any showing that their work falsely defamed its subject," Rehnquist said.
The decision threw out a lower court ruling that had upheld damages for the religious leader based on the "emotional distress" that he said he had suffered from a sexually graphic satire of him in the magazine.
The case was seen by journalism organizations as a major test of free press protections.
In Lynchburg, Va., Falwell said that the court has given "a green light to Larry Flynt and his ilk to print whatever they wish about any public figure at any time." He called the Hustler publisher a "sleaze merchant" and said he was sure the justices "were holding their noses while making this ruling."
Flynt's attorney, Alan Isaacman of Beverly Hills, Calif., said of the ruling: "That's what free speech is all about." Falwell, former head of the Moral Majority, has frequently "injected himself into public controversies, and Larry Flynt, like anyone, has a right to make fun of the man. The message is (that), if you are going to be out on the stump, you have to have a thick skin," Isaacman said.
Flynt told United Press International in Los Angeles that he had been afraid the court would not "look at the issue, that they would just say it's the pornographer versus the preacher."
"I'm glad I won," he said. "We felt we were going to win. I was just hoping that the Supreme Court would have an open eye as to all the ramifications that could come out of a bad decision."
'Just a Big Windbag'
Flynt said of Falwell: "He's just a big windbag. He's right in there with (Jimmy) Swaggart and (Jim) Bakker and all the rest of them, and the sooner they're exposed, the better off it will be for everybody."
He was referring to the two television evangelists who have fallen from grace after disclosures of extra-marital sexual encounters.
The case was based on a parody of a Campari liquor ad published in the sexually explicit magazine in November, 1983. The full-page parody, which featured Falwell's photograph, purportedly quoted him describing his "first time" sexual experience as being with his mother in an outhouse.
The Baptist minister filed suit and sought $45 million in damages for libel, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.
In a novel verdict, a Virginia jury concluded that Falwell had not been libeled because the ad was obviously false, but it nevertheless awarded him $200,000 for his anger and embarrassment. In 1986, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that conclusion.
In defending the verdict before the Supreme Court, Falwell's attorneys attempted to establish the damages for "distress" as a new recourse for maligned public figures.
In 1964, the high court had issued a landmark ruling that allowed a public figure to win an award for libel only when he could show that a defamatory statement about him was both false and was printed with "actual malice" or "reckless disregard" for the truth.
And the courts have also found constitutional protection for satire or attacks not meant to be taken seriously. But Falwell's lawyers said that, in this case, damages for distress were warranted because the material was particularly "outrageous and loathsome."
Rehnquist, in his opinion, said the high court did not want to create an "exception to the general First Amendment principles" by trying to draw a line between fair and unfair parodies of public figures.
Also, he said, " '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 jurors' tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression."
Tradition of Satire Cited
The chief justice has not been known as a defender of free speech or the press, but in his 11-page opinion he recounted the nation's history and tradition of sharp-tongued satirists and poison-penned cartoonists. George Washington was once portrayed riding on a donkey, accompanied by a caption asking which was the "ass," he said.