WHILE A POLITICAL cartoon may be offensive, the Supreme Court declares in its unanimous opinion, the First Amendment nonetheless protects it. Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision reaffirms the traditional defense of expression and removes the cloud that a terrible appellate decision had placed over it. Had the Supreme Court accepted the appellate court's view, cartoonists would have suffered. Written and spoken satire and caricature of every sort would have had to be fuzzed and softened, from newspapers and magazines to television, the theater, night clubs and soapboxes. The needle would have been out, the powder puff in. Anything that might create emotional distress in the mind of its target would suddenly have become, in legal terms, very dangerous.

The case began with a parody of an advertisement in Hustler magazine -- a gross and vile parody -- in which Jerry Falwell, the clergyman, was supposed to have described a drunken and incestuous encounter with his mother. Mr. Falwell sued for invasion of privacy, libel and emotional distress. The trial judge ruled out the assertion of privacy. The jury rejected the libel claim, on grounds that no one could possibly have believed that the parody was describing actual facts. But the jury found for Mr. Falwell regarding his emotional distress and awarded him damages. More startling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond upheld that verdict.

But now the Supreme Court has firmly and explicitly restated its longstanding position that a public figure such as Mr. Falwell is entitled to damages only when he can show that he was injured by a false fact. A public figure, it held, is not entitled to compensation for emotional distress alone. Mr. Falwell's lawyer urged the court to establish a separate category of parody that is "outrageous . . . and loathsome." But as the chief justice replied, a standard of outrageousness gets very subjective and invites a jury to impose its own tastes and opinions.

The court has maintained the cherished freedom of expression -- even to the point of excess -- in good working order. That is a profound service not merely to people like ourselves who write and draw but also to people who read, watch and listen -- to anyone who thinks that caricature and satire are a vital part of the open political discussion that is the essence of democracy.