The satirical newspaper The Onion on Monday filed an amicus brief mixing humor with legal arguments in support of an Ohio man who was briefly jailed over a parody Facebook page mocking his local police department.
The filing says The Onion—”the world’s leading news publication”—submitted the brief “to protect its continued ability to create fiction that may ultimately merge into reality. As the globe’s premier parodists, The Onion‘s writers also have a self-serving interest in preventing political authorities from imprisoning humorists.”
In 2016, police in Parma, Ohio arrested and jailed Anthony Novak after he created a Facebook page resembling the local police department’s own page on the social network.
According to the Associated Press, Novak’s posts included a hiring announcement “strongly encouraging minorities to not apply” and a fake event where any convicted pedophile could be “removed from the sex offender registry and accepted as an honorary police officer.”
Novak was charged with one felony count of disrupting public services but was acquitted at trial. He subsequently sued, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. However, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Novak’s suit by granting Parma police officers qualified immunity, a legal doctrine broadly shielding cops and other government officials from civil lawsuits.
“Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government? This was a surprise to America’s Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team,” the brief states. “Indeed, ‘Ohio Police Officers Arrest, Prosecute Man Who Made Fun of Them on Facebook’ might sound like a headline ripped from the front pages of The Onion—albeit one that’s considerably less amusing because its subjects are real.”
The Onion's amicus brief to the Supreme Court is a triple threat: masterfully written, draws attention to an important case that could easily skate by unnoticed, and nails the argument. https://t.co/Zzg67Qfc3b
— Ilyse Hogue (@ilyseh) October 4, 2022
“The 6th Circuit’s ruling imperils an ancient form of discourse,” the brief asserts. “The court’s decision suggests that parodists are in the clear only if they pop the balloon in advance by warning their audience that their parody is not true.”
“But some forms of comedy don’t work unless the comedian is able to tell the joke with a straight face,” the document continues. “Parody is the quintessential example. Parodists intentionally inhabit the rhetorical form of their target in order to exaggerate or implode it—and by doing so demonstrate the target’s illogic or absurdity.”
The brief argues:
- Parody functions by tricking people into thinking that it’s real;
- Because parody mimics the “real thing,” it has the unique capacity to criticize the real thing;
- A reasonable reader does not need a disclaimer to know that parody is parody; and
- It should be obvious that parodists cannot be prosecuted for telling a joke with a straight face.
“The Onion cannot stand idly by in the face of a ruling that threatens to disembowel a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, that is particularly potent in the realm of political debate, and that, purely incidentally, forms the basis of The Onion‘s writers’ paychecks,” the filing asserts.
“The Onion intends to continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power,” the brief adds. “And it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15-minute increments in an exercise yard.”
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