In a case that challenged traditional understandings of libel, Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell won $200,000 from Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt even though Falwell failed to convince a jury that he had been defamed. The money was awarded for “emotional distress,” brought on, Falwell said, by a satirical liquor advertisement in Hustler that portrayed him as a promiscuous drunkard.
The ad claimed that Falwell’s first sexual encounter occurred with his mother, an accusation that provoked the television preacher far more than the magazine’s previous insulting parodies. The $45 million libel trial was held in Roanoake, Virginia, near Falwell’s Lynchburg home. Falwell was dissatisfied that the jury dismissed his libel charge, but he was gratified at the emotional distress settlement—believed to be a first in libel law. In a prepared statement, Falwell said the compensation he received was “overshadowed by the finding that the First Amendment is not absolute. If the ruling is upheld, no longer can a pornographer or sleaze merchant falsely and maliciously inflict emotional anguish upon a public figure.”
The trial’s outcome extends press responsibility to include hurt feelings, rather than limiting it to actual damage to a reputation, the usual reason for filing a libel suit.
Libel is false information, published intentionally, that causes real suffering to a person’s standing among his peers. Legal safeguards against libel are tightly circumscribed in the interest of maintaining a free press. According to Corpus Juris, a legal encyclopedia, language that is unpleasant, annoying, irksome, and “subjects [the plaintiff] to jests or banter” may nonetheless be perfectly legal.
It is libelous only if a publication deliberately prints lies or displays “reckless disregard for the truth,” according Corpus Juris. Whether Falwell was a victim of libel hinged on a single sentence appearing in small type at the bottom of the phony advertisement. It said the ad was a parody, not to be taken seriously.
Experts say the disclaimer and the ad’s outrageous claims made it legally impossible to classify as libel. They question the emotional distress finding as well. Dale Spencer, professor of law and journalism at the University of Missouri and a member of an American Bar Association committee on communications law, said claiming emotional distress because of an alleged libel is “unique.… Emotional distress happens when a woman comes out of her house and someone says her kid was just run over by a car,” when that did not happen. The law would make no distinction between public figures and private individuals when considering an emotional distress claim, he said.
Public figures, however, have little immunity against even the severest barbs in print. “No one would believe the content of that [Hustler] ad,” Spencer said. The ability of the press to criticize and question people who seek a place in the public eye would be impaired by a finding of libel in a case like this, he said.
Flynt’s attorneys have asked the judge to overturn the jury’s decision to award money to Falwell. If that request is not granted, Flynt vows to appeal the case. Falwell is considering an appeal of the jury’s dismissal of the libel charge.
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