The Onion tells the Supreme Court – seriously – that satire is no laughing matter

From CNN:

The Onion – a publication best known for its tongue-in-cheek, satirical postings on politics and world events – has taken the very serious step of filing an amicus brief before the Supreme Court.

It is wading into legal advocacy by asking the high court to hear a case about an Ohio man who was arrested and later acquitted for creating a fake Facebook page that looked nearly identical to a local police department’s site.

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

Indeed, The Onion said the headlines surrounding this case seemed like they were ripped off the front pages of its own publication.

The Onion’s amicus brief is itself written in a very tongue-in-cheek, satirical way, though its ultimate aim is genuine – to convince the Supreme Court to take up the case involving free speech and qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that largely shields law enforcement officers from constitutional claims and one that the justices have largely avoided questioning in recent cases.

“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.

The man at the center of the case, Anthony Novak, was arrested in 2016 after he launched the Facebook page that mirrored the Parma Ohio Police Department’s official Facebook page. Police accused Novak of posting derogatory and inflammatory information under the guise of real officials from the police department, complete with fake job postings accompanied by notifications that the department discouraged minorities from applying.

Novak was charged with one felony count of disrupting public services, but was later acquitted at trial.

Novak’s attempts to sue the police department for violating his free speech rights were most recently stopped by the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel ruled in April that because officers there reasonably believed they were acting within the bounds of the law, Novak could not continue with his lawsuit against them.

But the panel of judges still was critical of the actions of the police officials.

“Granting the officers qualified immunity does not mean their actions were justified or should be condoned,” the appeals court wrote. “Indeed, it is cases like these when government officials have particular obligation to act reasonably. Was Novak’s Facebook page worth a criminal prosecution, two appeals, and countless hours of Novak’s and the government’s time? We have our doubts.”

Link to the rest at CNN

PG can’t believe that the local Ohio city attorney actually pursued a felony charge in this matter and that local judges failed to immediately dismiss it.

PG notes that the appellate court’s opinion identifies the city’s police management personnel and the two local judges by name, which is not necessary for its written decision. PG suspects this may have represented a legal backhand to embarrass the individuals involved for their stupidity even if the appeals court found Mr. Novak’s claim could not be pursued.

You can read the Sixth Circuit’s full opinion here.

2 thoughts on “The Onion tells the Supreme Court – seriously – that satire is no laughing matter”

  1. “reasonably believed they were acting withing the bounds of the law”

    Try that as someone being charged or sued when you are not a government official.

    “Qualified immunity” is a concept not to be found in any of the Founder’s writings or the Constitution (other than the very limited immunity for speech in debate). It should be drawn, quartered and burned, never to rise again.

  2. Ironically, the Sixth Circuit — a little over 30 years ago — was also the source of the last time the Court tried to tangle with parody and satire. And the Sixth Circuit got it wrong that time, too, by forgetting that one of the favorite French authors of several of the Founders was François-Marie Arouet, better known for some really vicious satire. Somehow, I suspect that a bit more… original-public-meaning originalism… might be called for, because in the face of that history it’s difficult to conceive of any reasonable public official not knowing that attempting to suppress satire and parody directed at those officials violates established law. (I did say “reasonable.”)

    The fundamental problem is that the federal judiciary doesn’t like making fun of cops or judges, and misstates the facts and misapplies doctrine every time. For example, in Dr Seuss Enters. v. Penguin Books LP, 109 F.3d 1394 (9th Cir. 1997), the reasoning and statement of facts† can only be explained by “judges don’t like it when people make fun of judges.”

    † Better would be “egregious misstatement of facts reflecting failure by both the lawyers and the judges to apply literary analysis methods and competence expected of a senior in a decent undergraduate literature program.” That’s the polite, only-borderline-contemptuous description.

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