Last week, Hustler Magazine argued in a federal appeals court that its decision to publish nude photos of a model just months after her passing is protected by the First Amendment because she is a newsworthy figure. Nancy Toffolini Benoit was murdered by her husband, wrestler Chris Benoit, who also killed the couple’s son back in 2007. The legal battle against Hustler has been waged by Toffolini’s family because they claim she never gave Hustler permission to publish the photos.
Back in June of 2009, the 11th United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the notorious death of a person does not permit publishers to publish any images of the person in question that they wish. A jury in June of 2011, after the case went to trial, determined that Hustler should be hit with a $19.6 million fine for punitive damages because it ran the photos in one of its publications. In order to follow a Georgia law that caps damages, a federal judge lowered that amount to $250,000.
The court debate last week was to determine if the original verdict should be reinstated and if the case should have even originally gone to trial in the first place. The family of Toffolini pleaded with a panel of three judges to let the jury’s original award stand. On the other side of things, the attorneys for Hustler argued that the magazine’s First Amendment rights were protected.
Derek Bauer, the attorney for Hustler, argued that the case should have never reached a trial because the magazine was protected by the First Amendment to publish the photos because Benoit had been deemed newsworthy in the United States. Bauer also said that courts have a responsibility to protect publications that publish “matters of public concern.”
“The public is interested in celebrities. I don’t necessarily approve of it, but that’s for the public to decide,” he said. Bauer also added that the material published by Hustler can also be found in other mainstream media, not just ‘fringe’ publications.
Richard Decker, an attorney for the Benoit family, asked that the panel of judges reinstate the original award of $19.6 million. Decker also said that the $250,000 award was not a deterrence to the magazine. He said that it was a “minor cost of doing business in a pornographic empire.” Decker also rebuked the idea that the photos were newsworthy in any method.
“The harm was the absolute loss of the plaintiff’s rights to control her daughter’s image forever and the very important right not to appear in Hustler,” Decker said. “They never wanted these photos to see the light of day.”
Chris Benoit, his wife, and their son were all found dead in their Atlanta home, which gained media attention across the country. According to police, Benoit strangled his wife and son to death and then hanged himself. At the time, Benoit was wrestling for World Wrestling Entertainment.