Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

Rhetorical Hyperbole – 1st Amendment

Rhetorical hyperbole is a First Amendment-based doctrine that often provides protection to exaggerated, over-the-top speech in defamation cases.  

Defined as “extravagant exaggeration employed for rhetorical effect,” the doctrine provides breathing space to freedom of speech by ensuring that that even heated and emotional rhetoric deserves free-speech protection in a free society.   

Supreme Court said certain words are hyperbole, not defamation

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Greenbelt Cooperative Pub. Ass’n v. Bresler (1970) that the use of the term “blackmail” to refer to a developer’s negotiating style was rhetorical hyperbole more than an imputation of criminal conduct.  The Court reasoned that “even the most careless reader must have perceived that the word was no more than rhetorical hyperbole, a vigorous epithet used by those who considered [the developer’s] negotiating position extremely unreasonable.” 

A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court again applied the rhetorical hyperbole defense to protect the union’s use of the term “scab” in Letter Carriers v. Austin (1974).  The Court reasoned that the use of the term in a union dispute was an example of “loose, figurate language” rather than defamation.  The Court explained that the use of the term was not conveying that the employees were actually committing crimes.

Rhetorical hyperbole defense has protected editorial writers in defamation suits

In Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court again discussed the doctrine of rhetorical hyperbole.  The Court noted that “the Constitution protects statements that cannot reasonably [be] interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual made in debate over public matters in order to provide assurance that public debate will not suffer for lack of imaginative expression or the rhetorical hyperbole which has traditionally added much to the discourse of our Nation.” 

The rhetorical hyperbole doctrine or defense has often protected editorial writers and sportswriters from defamation suits.  The thinking is that those type of writers are often writing more than simply straight news reporting and, thus, are entitled to use more figurative language in their descriptions.    

Draft protester engaged in political hyperbole, not true threat to kill the president, court found

While the doctrine primarily appears in defamation cases, the concept occasionally arises in true threat cases.  

This traces back to the Supreme Court’s initial true threat decision – Watts v. United States (1969).  A young draft protester was prosecuted for violating a federal anti-threat law for saying that “the first person he would put in his scope is L.B.J”, referring to President Lyndon Baines Johnson.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction, reasoning that he had engaged in “political hyperbole” rather than a true threat.

This article was published April 14, 2020. David L. Hudson, Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute and a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics.  He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018).  He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). By David L. Hudson, Jr. cited


Hyperbole Definition

In short, hyperbole is a statement that has been exaggerated. It is used to overstate a situation and is not intended to be taken literally. Hyperbole may be used in a figurative language to overexpress what someone is saying, in such an example as ‘I almost died from laughter.’ The speaker did not literally almost die but using this hyperbole they are expressing that they laughed a great deal.

Hyperbole can also be used as a rhetoric device, in this type of use you might see a phrase such as ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ In this example, the speaker is exaggerating how fearful people should be or are.

Hyperbole is used to overemphasize a statement or situation in order to give a more dramatic effect on the listener or reader.

Hyperbole Examples

Examples of Hyperbole in Speech

There are many instances in which hyperbole is used in day to day conversation, it is one of the most common forms of figures of speech and you are likely to hear it used regularly. Let’s now take a look at some examples of hyperbole in sentences.



  • I have a hundred and one things to do today.
  • This job is going to take me forever.
  • I am never going to finish this meal.
  • She has been at the shop for an eternity.
  • I am stuck on a level which is impossible.
  • I am never going to get this job done.
  • That man is as old as time.
  • This bag weighs ten tonnes.
  • He has been talking for a week.
  • When I was pregnant, I was as big as a house.
  • He never diets and now he is as heavy as an elephant.
  • I almost died of embarrassment.
  • I laughed so much, I nearly died.
  • I’ve seen this movie a million times.
  • I’m so hungry that I could eat a horse.
  • When I went jogging this morning, I worked so hard, I ran a thousand miles.
  • I have a million problems that I need to solve.
  • The man was as tall as a skyscraper.
  • I haven’t seen my mother in and age and a day.
  • I was dying to see the concert.
  • Last summer was so hot that I was on fire.
  • My husband is a bad driver, he drives everywhere are five hundred miles an hour.
  • My sister has a brain the size of a pea.
  • His heart is as cold as ice.
  • His stare was as hard as a rock.
  • The big cat runs faster than the wind.
  • Today has been the worst day in history.
  • My girlfriend has skin as soft as silk.
  • I should not have done that, my mom is going to kill me.
  • She is thin as a runner bean.
  • I cooked enough food to feed an army.
  • That dress cost me a billion dollars.
  • He had a mile-wide smile.
  • I’m so sad that I am drowning in my sorrows.
  • My aunt is my guardian angel.
  • I have told you no a thousand times before.
  • His new sports car goes faster than the speed of light.
  • He is as old as a dinosaur.
  • I was so shocked that you could have knocked me over with a feather.
  • He has an endless supply of money.

Examples of Hyperbole in Literature

Many times writers will use hyperbole within their work to exaggerate or overstate a situation in order to make it more interesting and gripping to the reader. Let’s take a look at some examples of when hyperbole has been used in written works.

  • We’re so hot, we will melt your popsicle.” This is a line from the song California Girls by Katy Perry.
  • I will fly to the moon and back.” This is an example of hyperbole taken from a song by the band Savage Garden.
  • One winter, since it was so cold, the geese all went backwards and I saw fish flying south.” This example of hyperbole is taken from Babe in the blue ox by Paul Bunyan.
  • My love, I will adore you until Africa and China meet.” This is an example of hyperbole being used in the text As I walked once evening by W H Auden.
  • I was to wait at the train station for ten days-it was an eternity.” In this case, hyperbole can be seen written by Joseph Conrad in The heart of darkness.
  • In the poem Red, red rose written by Robert Burns, the author implies that he will love his partner until the seas dry up with the line “I will love you until the seas are dry.”
  • Please take a seat, because this man has produced nine million awards ceremonies.” This is an example of hyperbole being used in a speech delivered by Dick Clark as he accepted an award.
  • The captain was taking on anyone who could walk.” In this case, we see an example of hyperbole which was taken from a speech written by Larry Rayfield Wright.
  • Her facial skin was a drawn and tight as that of an onion.” We find this example of hyperbole in the book, Parker’s back written by Flannery O’Connor.
  • It was not simply a man which he was holding but rather giant, a huge block of stone.” This is an example of hyperbole taken from a text written by James Ramsey Ulman called Banner in the sky.


Hyperbole is a type of figure of speech that is used to overstate or exaggerate a sentence or situation in order to make it more dramatic. It is regularly used in day to day conversation especially in informal speech. It can also be found many times in written text such as songs, poetry and stories to add an emphasis on something. cited