What if you said a very famous celebrity likes to sleep with goats? What if you said that celebrity loves hard liquor and is always intoxicated in public? What if you said his first sexual experience was with his own mother?
In 1983, Larry Flynt said all that and more about Jerry Falwell in his magazine Hustler. Falwell sued him for 50 million dollars. What followed was one of the greatest victories for free speech, specifically parodies and criticism involving public figures, ever to come down from the Supreme Court. The decision was unanimous. Said the court, in part:
"Justice Frankfurter put it succinctly in Baumgartner v. United States, 322 U. S. 665, 673-674 (1944), when he said that "[o]ne of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures." Such criticism, inevitably, will not always be reasoned or moderate; public figures as well as public officials will be subject to "vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks," New York Times, supra, at 270. " . . .
. . .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 Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U. S. 64 (1964), we held that even when a speaker or writer is motivated by hatred or ill will his expression was protected by the First Amendment: Thus while such a bad motive may be deemed controlling for purposes of tort liability in other areas of the law, we think the First Amendment prohibits such a result in the area of public debate about public figures.
"Debate on public issues will not be uninhibited if the speaker must run the risk that it will be proved in court that he spoke out of hatred; even if he did speak out of hatred, utterances honestly believed contribute to the free interchange of ideas and the ascertainment of truth." Id., at 73."
Falwell and Flynt later became good friends, visiting each other frequently, going on speaking engagements together, and exchanging Christmas cards. In 1998, Flynt apologized for the ad. Falwell leaped to his feet and shook Flynt's hand.
This Oscar-nominated film from 1996 details Falwell's early life through the famous court case and his near assassination. It can be viewed for free and legally from Crackle.com on Youtube.