The Onion recently filed a headline-grabbing amicus brief intended to defend the rights of Ohio amateur satirist Anthony Novak. Novak created the “City of Parma Police Department” Facebook account, admittedly to exercise his “fundamental American right” of “[m]ocking our government officials.” His posts to the account included mock advertisements for a “Pedophile Reform event” and a program intended to starve the homeless to encourage them to leave the area. Soon after, the police department obtained a search warrant, seized his phone and laptop, and arrested Novak for disrupting police functions.
Novak was acquitted and brought a lawsuit against the City of Parma and various of its officers. The officers were granted qualified immunity, and the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Novak appealed the case to the Sixth Circuit.
The Sixth Circuit stated that it is a “difficult question” to determine whether the Facebook page was protected speech or the unprotected impersonation of the police. The court said that reasonable people, including the officers in question, could disagree about whether the speech was protected, and therefore qualified immunity protects the officers who found probable cause to arrest Novak and search his home. Novak petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari.
On Monday, The Onion waded into the fray to defend the rights of satirists everywhere. Proving that the medium is in fact, the message, The Onion identified itself as a print newspaper beginning in 1756 with a readership of 4.3 trillion and supporting more than 350,000 journalism jobs across the world. It also claimed that it “owns and operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes, stands on the nation’s leading edge on matters of deforestation and strip mining, and proudly conducts tests on millions of animals daily.”
In a self-described “convoluted legal filing intended to deconstruct the societal implications of parody,” The Onion argued that parody is protected speech, and the Sixth Circuit impermissibly required a disclaimer of some kind in order to determine that the Facebook account was indeed satire. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that, because Novak had deleted comments disclosing the account as a parody, it was difficult to identify it as such. As The Onion points out, no other circuit has required such a disclaimer, which would of course render the parody moot. “Reasonable readers” do not require the spoiling of a good punchline. Quoting Mark Twain, “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.” The Onion argues that no satirist should be required to identify their satire in order to avoid potential jail time.
The case is Novak v. Parma, Ohio, case number 22-293, in the Supreme Court of the United States. You can access The Onion’s brief here.