Comic Relief? The Supreme Court Decision that Saved Political Satire

Raphael Cho ‘21

On September 20, the self-proclaimed Patron Saint of Political Cartoons, Roslyn Mazer, and the Dean of Vice, Leslie Kendrick, (their words not mine) hosted a discussion on Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell. Mazer was counsel to the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists during the case and served as the FTC Inspector General from 2015 to 2018. Patrick Oliphant, a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist, was also in attendence because the event celebrated the donation of his archives to UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. While the attendees ate their grilled salmon and tofu salads, Mazer and Dean Kendrick discussed the hilarious history and significance of the Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell case.


The story of Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell began in 1983 with a parodical advertisement for Campari in Hustler Magazine. The original Campari ad featured interviews with public figures describing their “first time” drinking Campari. The Hustler parody used the same format but included a satirical interview with Jerry Falwell, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist. In the “interview,” Falwell casually claims that his “first time” was with his mother while “drunk off our God-fearing asses on Campari” and that his “Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $1000 donation.” Falwell was not pleased.


Soon after the ad was published, Falwell sued Hustler Magazine for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The District Court granted summary judgment for Hustler Magazine on the invasion of privacy and libel claims, but the jury awarded Falwell $150,000 on intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision on appeal, causing Hustler Magazine to file a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court.  


However, Mazer was fighting an uphill battle. The established media outlets were hesitant to support Hustler Magazine, and the Rehnquist Court had rejected eighty percent of First Amendment claims. Rather than trying to bypass the Scalia-Rehnquist wall, however, Mazer appealed to their love of U.S. history. Drawing on her contacts in the political cartooning world, Mazer added an appendix of cartoons in her legendary brief. She included historical cartoons from Thomas Nast, who was instrumental in the collapse of Boss Tweed, as well as submissions from modern cartoonists such as Patrick Oliphant.


Ultimately, Mazer’s gambit paid off with the Court reversing the Fourth Circuit judgment in a unanimous decision. The Court held that “public figures . . . may not recover for . . . emotional distress . . . without showing that the publication contains false statement of fact which was made with actual malice.” Dean Kendrick stated that the decision “strikes at the heart of what the First Amendment is about” and continues to hold “historical and doctrinal significance.” The hosts also explained that the case represented an “inversion of the traditional political framework” for liberal and conservative judges on First Amendment claims. 


Throughout the event, Mazer injected comic relief (sorry, I had to) into the discussion with political cartoons and anecdotes. In one instance, she displayed a cartoon submission which depicted a butler speaking to the Chief Justice. The cartoon read, “Justice Rehnquist, will you be wearing your hooded white or your black robe today?” Mazer strategically omitted this cartoon in her brief, invoking the ire of the illustrator. She also noted that in Justice Rehnquist’s high school yearbook, he wrote that his favorite activity outside of class was cartooning. And that, in an interview with Justice Scalia, he stated, “I have a cartoon by Pat Oliphant in my man-cave.”


However, Mazer also gave the audience a somber reminder that journalists and cartoonists are increasingly under threat. She listed acts of literal violence, threats of litigation, and the decline of newspapers to emphasize that free speech must be continually reinforced. As the discussion began to close, Mazer left the audience with a pertinent quote from Mr. Oliphant—“In thirty-five odd years of watching and caricaturing public figures, I have increasingly felt that the figures are lampooning themselves and that the business of satire is continually and deliberately being undercut by the subjects.”