WHEN it comes to parodies of public figures, one person's good laugh is another's groan. That's a given, and if caricature and wit are to survive as part of the free flow of ideas in a democratic society, boundaries can't be drawn on the basis of taste - or on how distressed a cartoonist's or writer's target becomes. The Supreme Court recognized this in its decision overturning a jury award of $200,000 to the Rev. Jerry Falwell for ``emotional distress'' suffered at the hands of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.
It's true, Mr. Flynt's distasteful bit of parody, portraying the Rev. Mr. Falwell as an incestuous drunkard, had nothing of incisive caricature or wit.
Frankly, we see no reason to publish such salacious material, no matter what the ``right'' to do so. Publications cannot avoid responsibility for the moral content of their product. So why bring the Flynt satire under the First Amendment umbrella, along with worthier satire and comment?
In his opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist weighed the possibility of laying down a ``principled standard,'' separating gutter material like the Hustler parody from the realm of political cartooning. He concluded that such a standard was elusive, and that a charge of outrageousness, like that by Falwell, could not stand in for one.
If the jury award based on ``emotional distress'' had been allowed to stand, a huge door to libel suits against anyone who criticizes, lampoons, and derides the actions of public figures would have swung open. A legal shift in Falwell's direction, while punishing a purveyor of smut, would have also hurt a legion of cartoonists and writers - as well as the public they speak to.
The court's ruling was rock solid. In a democracy devoted to open expression, the ultimate and only truly effective sanction against unworthy expression is the individual's decision to spurn it.