The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the Rev. Jerry Falwell may not collect $200,000 in damages from publisher Larry C. Flynt and Hustler magazine for an advertising parody that portrayed Falwell as a drunkard having sex with his mother in an outhouse.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for an eight-member court, said public figures who cannot prove that they were libeled cannot recover damages for sarcastic parodies or opinions, no matter how outrageous, that might cause them emotional distress.

"At the heart of the First Amendment," Rehnquist said, "is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern."

Rehnquist, citing earlier opinions and strongly reaffirming the court's landmark 1964 ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan, said, "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."

A jury in Roanoke gave Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, a $200,000 judgment against Flynt for the 1983 parody, a takeoff on a Campari Liqueur ad campaign in which celebrities discussed "their first time."

The jury said the parody was not libelous because it clearly could not be believed. But the jury assessed damages on grounds that Flynt could be held liable for "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the award, saying press protections in the New York Times case did not apply to such knowingly reckless conduct and that the issue was whether the ad's "publication was sufficiently outrageous."

Rehnquist, reversing that ruling, said that, "in the world of debate about public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment. In {a 1964 case}, we held that, even when a speaker or writer is motivated by hatred or ill will, his expression was protected by the First Amendment."

In this case, the flamboyant publisher admitted that he wanted to hurt and embarrass Falwell, but Rehnquist said cartoons and parodies often are "calculated to injure the feelings of the subject of the portrayal."

"Outrageousness in the area of political and social discourse," Rehnquist said, "has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors' tastes or views or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression."

Rehnquist said the court could find no "principled standard to separate" renowned political cartoonists and Flynt's crude efforts. Without such a standard, he said, a finding against Flynt would subject all others to suits.

Media lawyers had watched the case closely, expressing concern that a ruling for Falwell would permit "hurt feelings" lawsuits even about truthful articles, allowing plaintiffs a way around restrictions established by Times v. Sullivan.

Yesterday's decision means that, in order to win judgments against the media, public figures must prove that cartoons, satirical articles or parodies contain false statements that could be understood as factual assertions and that the authors knew that the statements were false or did not care whether they were.

"It's a marvelous opinion," First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams said, "all the more reassuring in that it was . . . written by the chief justice," who had not been seen as receptive to the media's First Amendment claims.

"It is quite an important ruling," Abrams said, "and we have Larry Flynt to thank for it."

Flynt, once arrested for shouting obscenities at the justices before being removed from their courtroom, told United Press International in Los Angeles that he was afraid that the court "would just say it's the pornographer versus the preacher," and was happy that the court had "an open eye to all the ramifications that could come out of a bad decision."

Flynt said Falwell was "just a big windbag. He's right in there with {Jimmy} Swaggart and {Jim} Bakker and all the rest of them, and the sooner they're exposed, the better."

Falwell told UPI that "no sleaze merchant like Larry Flynt should be able to use the First Amendment as an excuse for maliciously and dishonestly attacking public figures as he has so often done. However, I am sure the justices, in view of Larry Flynt, were holding their noses while making the ruling."

At a news conference later, Falwell said there is "a line where the media may not go, and that line was crossed by Mr. Flynt when he attacked my mother, who had been in heaven for 10 years."

Justice Byron R. White did not agree with Rehnquist's reasoning but concurred in the result in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not participate in the case.

In another closely watched case, the court reaffirmed, 6 to 2, cities' authority to pass rent-control laws, rejecting arguments that such laws are inherently unconstitutional.

Rehnquist, writing for the court, upheld a law in San Jose, Calif., that said "tenant hardship" could be taken into account in determining the maximum price demanded by landlords. He rejected arguments that such a provision unconstitutionally forced property owners alone to bear a burden that should be borne by the public.

"We have long recognized that a legitimate and rational goal of price or rate regulation is the protection of consumer welfare," Rehnquist said. The law was "a rational attempt to accommodate the conflicting interests of protecting tenants from burdensome rent increases while at the same time ensuring that landlords are guaranteed a fair rate of return on their investment."

A landlord organization had attacked the 1979 ordinance as an unconstitutional "taking" of property without compensation, prohibited by the Fifth Amendment.

The "hardship" provision, though never enforced on a landlord, was not a policy a legislature could adopt in a rent-control ordinance, they said.

Rehnquist rejected that broad challenge as "premature" but held the door open to challenges if a landlord could show that he was adversely affected by the provision.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in dissent, said the landlords' complaint was not premature. "I would . . . hold that the tenant hardship provision . . . effects a taking of private property without just compensation."

John Powell, American Civil Liberties Union legal director, called the ruling "a substantial victory" for those favoring rent-control laws.

The court, he said, declared that, "if a landlord can show at some future date that the city has gone too far, it would look at that." But, Powell said, the opinion means that the conservative challenge to the constitutionality of rent control in general is "dead."