BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Hustler magazine and publisher Larry Flynt recorded another victory in defense of the First Amendment, when a federal appeals court on Tuesday sided with Hustler in a dispute over nude pictures of a model published after she was killed by her pro wrestler husband.
In a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, the court threw out a jury award of punitive damages in a lawsuit brought by Maureen Toffoloni, the mother of Nancy Benoit, the murdered wife of professional wrestler Chris Benoit. The lawsuit alleged that in publishing nude photographs of Benoit as part of an article about her murder that Hustler violated her right of publicity.
At trial in an Atlanta federal court, the jury awarded Benoit's estate approximately $19.6 million in punitive damages for Hustler's publication of Benoit's images. The trial judge reduced that amount to the Georgia statutory maximum of $250,000, which the court of appeals decision vacated.
On appeal, Hustler argued that even if the nude photographs were not newsworthy, Flynt and his staff honestly believed that their publication was newsworthy and protected by the First Amendment. As a result, any award of punitive damages was unjustified.
In agreeing with Hustler, the 11th Circuit panel found that Toffoloni had failed to refute the testimony of numerous witnesses establishing that Hustler's staff honestly believed in the newsworthiness of the images, and that "no reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that punitive damages were warranted."
Flynt's longtime attorney Paul Cambria remarked, "Our client is very satisfied with the Court's decision in this matter. While we still believe that publication of the Benoit images was newsworthy, the fact that the jury's punitive damages were vacated is itself a significant victory for those seeking to defend the First Amendment."
Cambria continued, "Editors make reasoned decisions every day as to whether something is or is not news. Had the punitive damages been allowed to stand, it would have signaled that even innocent mistakes as to the newsworthiness of information would be subject to punitive damages. Such a result would have had a chilling effect on the reporting of controversial or emotionally charged subjects.
"As a longtime defender of the First Amendment, Larry Flynt once again chose to make a stand, and he should be applauded for that."
Larry Flynt added, "Free speech is not free; you still have to pay the lawyers."