The Onion Files Amicus Brief in Support of Parody

Satirical news website The Onion has filed a Supreme Court brief in support of a man prosecuted for Facebook posts in which he made fun of the police, asserting that the reasonable reader test does not require parodists to spoil their own punchlines. 

In its brief, The Onion points out that the headline “Ohio Police Officers Arrest, Prosecute Man Who Made Fun of Them on Facebook” appears at first glance to be one of its own headlines. The man, Anthony Novak, had created a Facebook page purporting to be affiliated with the police department of Parma, Ohio. His posts included an advertisement for a “pedophile reform event” with a “no means no” station and a solicitation for job applications stating that minorities were “strongly encourag[ed]” not to apply.

After officers authored a press release and appeared on the news announcing an investigation into the page, Novak took it down. However, police proceeded to search his home, seize his phone and laptop, and arrest him. Novak was prosecuted under an Ohio law making it illegal to disrupt or impair police functions using a computer, but a jury ultimately acquitted him. He went on to sue the police and the city for violating his constitutional rights. However, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Novak, concluding that the police had qualified immunity.

The Onion’s brief asserts that the Sixth Circuit’s ruling threatens its business model, puts its parodists at risk, and “imperils an ancient form of discourse.” The brief explains that some forms of comedy, such as parody, simply cannot work if parodists are forced to “pop the balloon in advance” by warning their audience that what they are about to say is not true.

To illustrate the power and importance of parody, the brief reminds the Court of A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, a satirical piece that suggests eating babies can solve the Irish overpopulation crisis of the eighteenth century. “That leverage of form—the mimicry of a particular idiom in order to heighten dissonance between form and content—is what generates parody’s rhetorical power…. If parody did not deliver that advantage, then no one would use it. Everyone would simply draft straight, logical, and uninspiring legal briefs instead.”

Novak’s writ of certiorari petition asks the Supreme Court to determine whether officers are entitled to qualified immunity for arresting someone based solely on speech parodying the government.

Additional Reading

The Onion advises the Supreme Court’s ‘total Latin dorks’ on parody, NPR (October 4, 2022)

Claiming to have 4.3 trillion readers, the Onion supports parodist and its writers’ paychecks in SCOTUS brief, ABA Journal (October 4, 2022)

Brief of The Onion as Amicus Curiae in Support of Petitioner in Novak v. City of Parma (October 2022)

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