The satirical online website The Onion has filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court to side with a man who was arrested for parodying and criticizing police online.
Anthony Novak was arrested after he created a Facebook page six years ago to make fun of his local police department in Parma, Ohio. He made six posts on the page and faced a felony charge for violating a law that prohibited using a computer to “disrupt” or “interrupt” police functions, according to court documents.
A jury acquitted Novak of the charge, and Novak sued the officers, alleging his First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that probable cause existed to believe that Novak’s speech was criminal and the officers were entitled to protection under qualified immunity, which protects government officials like police officers from civil lawsuits except for when “clearly established” constitutional or statutory rights were violated.
The Onion said in its brief supporting Novak’s appeal to the Supreme Court to allow him to sue that they were concerned when they heard that “Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government.”
“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 brief states.
The Onion argued that its business model is threatened by what happened in the situation. They said parody would be “functionally useless” without the ability to fool people.
The brief also states that The Onion regularly criticizes authoritarian countries like Iran and North Korea and “domestic presidential administrations.” It states that the ruling against allowing Novak’s suit to proceed would fail to hold government actors accountable for prosecuting someone for making fun of them.
The Onion argues that the 6th Circuit’s ruling suggests that parody is only protected if parodists warn the public in advance that their words are not true.
“But some forms of comedy don’t work unless the comedian is able to tell the joke with a straight face,” the brief states. “Parody is the quintessential example.”
They said parodists intentionally take the rhetorical form of their target to exaggerate or “implode” it and demonstrate the illogic of the subject. They said announcing in advance that the parody is fake would “strip parody of the very thing that makes it function.”