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Trump coup attempt loses title of 'funniest Supreme Court filing'

What world do we live in that a satirical outlet defends First Amendment rights better than police and our courts?
Photo illustration: A broken megaphone with a sticker showing the laughing emoji lying over yellow tapes that read,\"Police Line Don't Cross\".
Sometimes humor and parody of powerful entities come with a price. But that price should not be jail time.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

The satirical outlet The Onion, self-titled “America’s Finest News Source,” filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday that included this headline: “Ohio Police Officers Arrest, Prosecute Man Who Made Fun of Them on Facebook.” But this time, The Onion wasn’t joking. It was in fact defending an Ohio man who, in Onion-like style, had mocked his local police department and then was arrested by that department.

I played some tough rooms when I was a full-time comedian, but never was I threatened with jail time for my jokes.

I played some tough rooms when I was a full-time comedian, but never was I threatened with jail time for my jokes. And Anthony Novak, who was held in jail for four days, should have felt equally free to make jokes. But he was jailed — in the United States of America, the land of the free — and it’s a shame that The Onion, which has adopted the Latin phrase “Tu stultus es” (or “You are dumb”) as its slogan, has been a bigger defender of Novak’s First Amendment rights than the police and our courts have been.

What happened to Novak is deeply troubling for those who believe that we should be able to mock the police, or anyone in power, by way of comedic parody, without fear of prison time. Thankfully, The Onion is leaning into its role as our “finest news source,” and sounding alarm bells about the case.

On March 1, 2016, Novak anonymously published a Facebook page parodying the website of the police department in Parma, Ohio, designing it to look like Parma Police Department’s actual Facebook page. In the 12 hours his page was up, Novak posted a total of six entries mocking the police and others.

He claimed a new law had been enacted that barred Parma residents “from giving ANY HOMELESS person food, money, or shelter in our city for 90 days,” and that it was intended “to have the homeless population eventually leave our city due to starvation.”

But apparently the police were most upset by the jokes made at their expense, such as the one that claimed new officers would be recruited based on “a 15 question multiple choice definition test followed by a hearing test” and said officials in the 87% white city were “strongly encouraging minorities to not apply.”

Novak quickly took down his parody Facebook page after a Parma police officer appeared on local news explaining that the page had triggered phone calls to the police and that police there were criminally investigating who was behind the Facebook page.

Police linked Novak to the page after serving a search warrant to Facebook and then, according to his filing, “arrested him, searched his apartment, seized his phone and laptop, and jailed him for four days.”

Novak rightfully sued the Parma Police Department for violating his First Amendment rights.

A grand jury charged him of violating an Ohio law that makes it a felony “to disrupt, interrupt, or impair the functions of any police operations,” but he was thankfully acquitted. All that for posting six comedic posts on a Facebook page that was only up for 12 hours.

Novak rightfully sued the Parma Police Department for violating his First Amendment rights, but the U.S Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit — while noting that it “does not mean [the officers’] actions were justified or should be condoned” — found the police were protected by “qualified immunity.” This doctrine, which activists opposed to police abuses have increasingly sought to abolish, provides the police with broad protections against civil liability for wrongdoing so long as they don’t violate “clearly established” law.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Novak says the key question is “whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for arresting an individual based solely on speech parodying the government.” The answer must be a resounding no. The freedom to criticize the police and people in power must be vigilantly protected.

Enter The Onion with its funny, irreverent yet powerful brief expressing the reasons it’s defending Novak and describing what happened to him as wrong: “First, the obvious,” the filing states. “The Onion’s business model was threatened.”

Putting aside the comedy, The Onion defended parody as a tool that “provides functionality and value to a writer or a social commentator that might not be possible by, say, simply stating a critique out right.” And to the point raised by the police that the Facebook page looked just like their own, The Onion perfectly explained: “Parodists intentionally inhabit the rhetorical form of their target in order to exaggerate or implode it — and by doing so demonstrate the target’s illogic or absurdity.” It adds, “Put simply, for parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original.”

“Parodists can take apart an authoritarian’s cult of personality,” the brief continues, “point out the rhetorical tricks that politicians use to mislead their constituents, and even undercut a government institution’s real-world attempts at propaganda.”

Given the threats our democracy faces, parodists that cut through propaganda are needed now more than ever.

Given the threats our democracy faces, parodists that cut through propaganda are needed now more than ever.

The Supreme Court hasn't accepted Novak's case yet, but if it does and then doesn't rule in his favor, it will mean he can’t recover any compensation for what Parma police did to him. That would send police departments the message that if they arrest and prosecute a person for mocking them, they’ll suffer zero consequences. That’s a recipe for silencing dissent.

Being funny, be it via political parody or a comedian in a club, is hard enough without having to fear doing hard time for mocking the powers that be.

The Onion says it intends “to continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power.” But “it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15- minute increments in an exercise yard.”

That might sound like a joke, but Novak, for one, knows that it is not.