There is little good to be said about Larry Flynt's magazine "Hustler," and its parody article about the Rev. Jerry Falwell wasn't what you would call a barrel of laughs. It was gross. But it was not libel. That's what a Roanoke jury found last week. The piece in question was so preposterous as to be unbelievable, so Rev. Falwell's reputation did not suffer and he had not been libeled.
But having made this reasonable decision, the jurors then did something unusual and wrong. They found that Mr. Flynt had purposely caused the Moral Majority leader "emotional distress" and they awarded him $200,000 in damages. Suits asking damages for emotional distress are rare and not generally filed by public figures. They require proof of outrageous conduct and do not involve the publication of words alone. In one reported case, for example, a woman suffered a mental collapse after being told by a malicious prankster to rush to a funeral home because her husband and children had been killed in an accident; in another, a man was put in fear of his life when a mob assembled and threatened to lynch him. The Falwell case does not fit this pattern, and if it is allowed to stand, there is a chance that people in the public eye who cannot win libel suits will instead charge that they have been embarrassed, or made uncomfortable or ridiculed, and threaten to sue for particularly sharp or robust criticism.
Libel suits are hard for public figures to win, and this is true for a reason. Where libel is concerned, the First Amendment has been interpreted to protect expression except if it is false and known to be false or published in reckless disregard of the truth. If, however, people who write and express views on public issues have to worry about paying damages to a ublic figure who has not been libeled but whose feelings may have been hurt, that will be an enormous impediment to vital and useful public discourse. Discussion, debate and certainly satire and parody involving public figures are to be welcomed; they cannot be penalized without diminishing and endangering free speech.