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Hustler Magazine v. Falwell

April 14, 2011

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.

3 Comments
  1. April 14, 2011 5:47 PM

    I found this article very amusing as I have never heard of the case and I find it funny that you compared Mill to the editor of a pornographic magazine. In today’s world, people often slander the reputation of others because of the right to free speech. Magazines such as “The Onion” and the on campus newspaper “Every 3 Weekly” are based on making fun of other people and organizations. However, I believe there is a clear difference between stating an opinion and intentionally harming another. I am not sure if Flynt actually believed that Falwell had sex with his mother in an outhouse or not, but if he knew the information to be false, I do not think he should publish it in his magazine. Even though I find it kind of funny and entertaining, it is not fair to Falwell to have people spreading rumors about him that can hurt his career and reputation.

  2. willscheffer permalink
    April 14, 2011 8:58 PM

    I was very surprised reading your post to find that the Supreme Court voted 8-0 against Falwell. I truly believe this is a perfect example by which to make an argument that defines freedom of speech versus slander. To me this was a case of out and out slander. The cartoon that Hustler printed had zero value whatsoever. Its sole purpose was to slander and degrade Mr. Falwell. Freedom of speech is certainly very important to me and many people in this country, but to a point. If something has no value to it, as was the case of this cartoon, then it is slander. I agree with the Supreme Court that “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”, however this parody was a worthless picture, not an idea or an opinion that furthered intelligent discussion about issues or “truth.”

  3. Jeremy Kucera permalink
    April 18, 2011 1:50 AM

    Both of you guys make really good points, but I’m just going to throw a couple things out there to defend Flynt and the justices’ decision. The first thing being that it is hard to say what is intelligent and what is not. If you start restricting free speech to only “intelligent” comments, then that would be like slapping the founding fathers in the face. The second, and most important thing, is the question of what is more important in this country: hurting somebody’s feelings/defaming their character, or absolute free speech? I think free speech is the answer, and I think that’s why the justices made the right ruling.

    Also I thought I would just bring up some logistics from the case if you guys were curious. Will, you brought up slander, which is a good point. The U.S. does have laws against slander. However, my english professor, who also went to law school, explained to me that the U.S. has extremely strict guidelines for punishing slander. The plantiff must be able to concretely show damages that the slander cost them, which is very vague and almost impossible to prove. Also, for speech to be considered slander, the comment must be something that “a reasonable person would believe.” Since no reasonable, sane person believed that Falwell had sex with his mom, then it was not considered slander. Just thought I could share that with you guys if you were curious.

    Anyway thanks for the comments!

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