The Onion – a satirical publication known for poking fun at everything from popular culture to global politics – is taking a stab at a serious issue. On Monday, it filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of an Ohio man who faced criminal charges over a Facebook page parodying his local police department.
Anthony Novak, an amateur comic from Parma, a Cleveland suburb, was arrested and briefly jailed after creating a fake social media page in 2016 styled after the Parma Police Department’s Facebook page. His lawyers argue it was an obvious parody, and he was acquitted at trial.
Novak subsequently filed a civil suit alleging his constitutional rights were violated, though that was dismissed after a federal appeals court granted the police officers qualified immunity – a legal doctrine that protects government officials from being sued for allegedly violating civil rights. “There’s no recognized right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause,” the appellate judges ruled.
Now, Novak is petitioning the Supreme Court to take up his case.
True to form, the supporting brief filed by the Onion’s lawyers Monday takes a satirical approach in its bid to get the nation’s top court to consider Novak’s petition. It starts with an outlandishly false claim that the Onion is “the world’s leading news publication,” with a “daily readership of 4.3 trillion” that has “grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.”
Despite the sarcasm and hyperbole, the legal brief isn’t a joke. The publication’s aim is to get the Supreme Court to scrutinize qualified immunity and free speech rights. (Amicus briefs are documents filed by parties not directly involved in a case to provide the court with additional information.)
“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 brief says.
It also highlights what the Onion suggests are shortcomings in the legal system when it comes to protecting those who use comedy to question people in positions of authority.
“The Onion regularly pokes its finger in the eyes of repressive and authoritarian regimes, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, and domestic presidential administrations,” the brief says. “So The Onion’s professional parodists were less than enthralled to be confronted with a legal ruling that fails to hold government actors accountable for jailing and prosecuting a would-be humorist simply for making fun of them.”
According to Novak’s lawyers, police obtained a warrant for his arrest over a fake Facebook page that mocked the department. The page in question was up for only about 12 hours before Novak took it down after law enforcement threatened a criminal investigation. They searched his apartment, seized his electronics and charged him with a felony under an Ohio law that criminalizes using a computer to “disrupt” police operations.
Novak’s petition calls on the Supreme Court to decide whether officials can claim qualified immunity when they arrest someone based purely on speech. It also asks the justices to do away with the doctrine altogether.
The Onion didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on its legal brief. The Parma police officials named in the brief couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, while the city’s legal department did not immediately return requests for comment overnight Monday. Andrew Wimer, a spokesman for the Institute for Justice, the civil rights law nonprofit which is representing Novak, described the Onion brief as “both humorous and very serious.”
“If the police can use their authority to arrest their critics without consequence, everyone’s rights are at risk,” the institute said in a statement.
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