Man Is Arrested for Parody—The Onion Files Supreme Court Brief

From a New York Times story by Eduardo Medina headlined “Area Man Is Arrested for Parody. The Onion Files a Supreme Court Brief.”:

A man who was arrested over a Facebook parody aimed at his local police department is trying to take his case to the Supreme Court. He has sought help from an unlikely source, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Monday.

“Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government?” the brief asked. “This was a surprise to America’s Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team.”

The source is, of course, The Onion.

Or, as the satirical website described itself in the brief, “the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.”

The Parma, Ohio, area man in question, Anthony Novak, spent four days in jail over a Facebook page he created in 2016 that mocked his local police department. He was prosecuted, and a jury found him not guilty.

Mr. Novak says his civil rights were violated, and he is trying to sue the city for damages. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year, saying that the police had qualified immunity, and an appeals court upheld that decision. Now the high court is reviewing his request to take up the matter.

One of Mr. Novak’s lawyers, Patrick Jaicomo, said Monday that last month he contacted Jordan LaFlure, the managing editor of The Onion, which is based in Chicago, to make him aware of the case and see if he would be interested in helping raise attention.

“They heard the story, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, this is something that could really put all of our people in the cross hairs if we rub someone the wrong way with one of our stories,’” Mr. Jaicomo said.

In a filing that read in places like one of its articles, The Onion laid out why it believes the authorities in Ohio had acted unconstitutionally, sprinkling in sincere arguments in defense of parody while riddling the rest of the text with moments of jest and hubris — claiming, for example, a readership of 4.3 trillion, and also boasting that it “owns and operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes.”

Chapter headings included: “Parody Functions By Tricking People Into Thinking That It Is Real” and “It Should Be Obvious That Parodists Cannot Be Prosecuted For Telling A Joke With A Straight Face.”

In page 15 of its 18-page filing, the brief accepted that “the reader’s attention is almost certainly wandering.”

“So here is a paragraph of gripping legal analysis to ensure that every jurist who reads this brief is appropriately impressed by the logic of its argument and the lucidity of its prose,” it says, before dishing out a series of phrases it said was for the “Latin dorks” in the federal judiciary: “Bona vacantia. De bonis asportatis. Writ of certiorari.

Mr. Novak’s fake Facebook page for the police department was modeled after the real page, but it contained a satirical slogan: “We no crime.”

One post, according to The Onion, claimed that the department would ban city residents from feeding homeless people in “an attempt to have the homeless population eventually leave our City due to starvation.” Other posts joked about abortion and pedophilia. (The Onion argued that the “quality and taste of the parody is irrelevant.”)

The police, as well as some residents who called them to complain about the site, did not find the page funny, Mr. Jaicomo said.

A lawyer representing Parma, Richard Rezie, did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment on Monday.

Mr. Jaicomo said he was grateful for The Onion’s backing. He said the brief was telling the court: Parody is important, and we’re going to use parody to make that point.

“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 said.

It pointed to The Onion’s history of blatantly ridiculous headlines: “Fall Canceled After 3 Billion Seasons.” “Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up in Harry Potter Craze.” “Kitten Thinks of Nothing but Murder All Day.” A footnote reads “See Mar-a-Lago Assistant Manager Wondering if Anyone Coming to Collect Nuclear Briefcase from Lost and Found, The Onion, Mar. 27, 2017.”

Sometimes, of course, discerning which headlines are parody is not always easy. It has become customary for people on social media to attach the disclaimer #NotTheOnion when a news item seems too strange to be true. (“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,” the brief said.)

To prepare the filing, The Onion worked with lawyers in Grand Rapids, Mich., who had previously worked with Mr. Jaicomo.

One of those lawyers, D. Andrew Portinga, said that writers at The Onion had helped his team flesh out the text and legal citations with quips.

“One of the points they wanted to make is that if you’re a comedy writer, you can’t tell people you’re going to tell them a joke before you tell them a joke,” Mr. Portinga said.

The brief also noted that the case posed a threat to The Onion’s business model.

“This was only the latest occasion on which the absurdity of actual events managed to eclipse what The Onion’s staff could make up,” it said. “Much more of this, and the front page of The Onion would be indistinguishable from The New York Times.”

Eduardo Medina is a Times reporter covering breaking news.
Also see the Washington Post story by Rachel Pannett headlined “The Onion files Supreme Court amicus brief defending the right to parody.” The opening grafs:

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….

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