The Onion files an amicus brief with the Supreme Court to defend parody

The Onion — a satirical publication known for poking fun at everything from popular culture to global politics — is taking on a serious issue. On Monday, that filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of an Ohio man facing criminal charges over a Facebook page that parodied 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 claim it was a blatant parody and he was acquitted at trial.

Novak subsequently filed a civil suit alleging that his constitutional rights had been 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 is no recognized right to be free from a retaliatory arrest supported by probable cause,” the appeals judges ruled.

Now Novak is asking the Supreme Court to take up his case.

Typically, the supporting brief filed by Onion’s lawyers on Monday took a satirical approach in its attempt to get the nation’s highest 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 most powerful and influential organization in human history.”

The Onion created the lovable ‘Diamond Joe’ Biden. Then it destroyed him.

Despite the sarcasm and hyperbole, the legal task is no joke. The purpose of the publication is to get the Supreme Court to scrutinize qualified immunity and freedom of expression. (Amicus briefs are documents filed by parties not directly involved in a case to provide additional information to the court.)

“The Onion cannot stand passively in the face of a judgment that threatens to eliminate a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, which is particularly potent in the realm of political debate, and which, incidentally, forms the basis of The Onion’s writers’ paychecks, ” says the letter.

It also highlights what the Onion suggests are flaws in the justice system when it comes to protecting those who use comedy to question people in positions of authority.

“The Onion regularly pokes the finger at repressive and authoritarian regimes such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and domestic presidential administrations,” the letter said. “So The Onion’s professional parodists were less than thrilled to be confronted with a legal ruling that fails to hold government actors accountable for imprisoning and prosecuting an aspiring humorist simply for making fun of them.”

According to Novak’s lawyers, police obtained an arrest warrant because of a fake Facebook page mocking the department. The page in question was only up for about 12 hours before Novak removed it after police threatened a criminal investigation. They searched his apartment, seized his electronics and charged him with a felony under an Ohio law that criminalizes the use of a computer to “disrupt” police operations.

Novak’s petition calls on the Supreme Court to decide whether officers can invoke qualified immunity when they arrest someone based solely on speech. It also asks the judges to do away with the doctrine altogether.

The Onion did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its legal brief. Parma police officials named in the summary could not immediately be reached for comment, and the city’s legal department did not immediately return requests for comment Monday night. Andrew Wimer, a spokesman for the Institute for Justice, the civil rights law nonprofit that represents Novak, described the Onion briefing as “both humorous and very serious.”

“If 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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