Hustler Magazine v. Falwell
I bet most of you have never heard of this Supreme Court case, or have you? Well I think it does a fantastic job of representing what Mill believes about free speech. Here is a quick overview of the case… In the eighties there was a very famous Baptist pastor named Jerry Falwell. His sermons were publicly broadcasted, and he was a very popular character in the American Christian community, which made him a famous public figure. There was also a less well-known pornographic magazine titled “Hustler.” In one of the issues of “Hustler,” a parody of a notorious liquor ad appeared that defamed Jerry Falwell. I have not seen the ad, but I have learned it implied that Falwell had had sex with his mother in an outhouse, a ridiculous accusation for such a respected figure. Falwell sued the magazine for libel and wanted the editor, Larry Flynt, to pay him for hurting his reputation because the ad was 100% false. However, Flynt appealed the case to the Supreme Court and won in an 8-0 decision (one justice didn’t judge on the case for some reason.) The reason Flynt won the case was because of something that Mill, and the United States’ Constitution, values very much: free speech. A movie based on this case called “The People vs. Larry Flynt” was also made. Here is a scene from that movie of Flynt’s lawyer arguing why free speech allows Flynt to publicly defame Jerry Falwell.
Just as the lawyer sites in this clip, unpopular speech is still vital to a nation. This is why I believe that Mill would have supported the Supreme Court’s decision to not punish Larry Flynt for the unpopular, false, and defaming ad. Even though the ad was false, false opinions should still be allowed according to Mill. It is how people express their opinions, and opinions should be protected. I doubt Larry Flynt ever read the works of Mill, but the two both make the same point. That point is that false speech should still be allowed cause it is an expression of opinion, and society benefits from all opinions, true or false. Also, people learn through others opinions, even if they are wrong. Flynt actually believed in his own mind that he was informing the public that Jerry Falwell was an immoral hypocrite. And according to Mill, that is good enough reason that the opinion should be protected. Mill also believes speech helps people to eventually find the whole “truth” to a situation. The Supreme Court also agreed with Mill on this issue, and it was evident in their opinion of the case.
“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.”
-United States Supreme Court opinion in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell
Since Mill was a 19th centruy philosopher, and Larry Flynt was a porographic magazine editor, it seems strange to compare the two. However, they both share the same opinion that all speech needs to be protected, and all speech benefits society.