Jerry Falwell was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1952, he became a ‘‘born again’’ Christian and earned a Divinity degree from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. After his graduation, Falwell returned to Lynchburg and married Macel Pate, with whom he has three children. In 1956, Falwell established the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, which grew quickly. Soon after, he began to preach on television and in 1971, Falwell founded Liberty University in Lynchburg.
In 1976, Falwell staged a series of rallies calling for moral renewal and opposing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1979, Falwell founded Moral Majority Incorporated, a secular group that lobbied for moral values. The Moral Majority played a large role in the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and supported George Bush’s run in 1988. Falwell disbanded the organization in 1989.
With the publication of a parody in the November 1983 issue of Hustler Magazine, Falwell was thrust into a major debate on the First Amendment. The parody was an advertisement for Campari Liqueur that contained Falwell’s name and picture. In the advertisement, Falwell purportedly describes his ‘‘first time,’’ intoxicated, in an outhouse, with his mother. The advertisement did contain a disclaimer reading ‘‘ad parody—not to be taken seriously’’ and in the table of contents, the advertisement is listed as ‘‘Fiction; Ad and Personality Parody.’’ Still outraged by what he believed was an obscene, false, and vulgar piece, Falwell filed suit against Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, and Flynt Distributing Company for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At trial, the court dismissed the invasion of privacy claim, and the jury ruled against him on the libel count, because they did not believe the advertisement could be reasonably understood as conveying actual facts or events. However, Falwell did prevail on the count of intentional infliction of emotional distress and was awarded $200,000.
On appeal, the court upheld the ruling that the First Amendment did not shield Flynt and Hustler from liability. However, Flynt and Hustler appealed that decision, and on February 24, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision as inconsistent with the First Amendment. The Supreme Court reasoned that public figures cannot recover under intentional infliction of emotional distress for such a publication unless they can show that the publication contained a ‘‘false statement of fact’’ that ‘‘was made with ‘actual malice.’’’ Because the jury held that the advertisement parody was not reasonably believable, Falwell could not meet his burden of proof.
Falwell continues to provoke controversy because of his willingness to address controversial issues and speak candidly about his beliefs. He frequently speaks out against homosexuality, pornography, abortion, and communism and in support of family, morality, human life, voluntary prayer, and the teaching of creationism in schools. Although criticized for not respecting the division between church and state, Falwell continues to believe that there is a place for God in government.
MARY K. MANKUS
References and Further Reading
See also Abortion; Equal Rights Amendment; Flynt, Larry; Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988); Prayer in Public Schools