On October 3, the satirical news organization The Onion filed a delightfully irreverent amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the petitioner seeking cert in Novak v. City of Parma, Ohio, et al. Even if you have no interest in the case, the brief is a good time—a deftly written panegyric to the art and relevance of parody that interweaves actual parody with supported legal arguments. Under its Argument I – Parody Functions by Tricking People into Thinking it is Real, the section begins …
Tu stultus es. You are dumb. These three Latin words have been The Onion’s motto and guiding light since it was founded in 1988 as America’s Finest News Source, leading its writers toward the paper’s singular purpose of pointing out that its readers are deeply gullible people.
In the next paragraph, The Onion states that the first reason its motto is central to the brief is that it knows the “federal judiciary is staffed entirely by total Latin dorks.” So, it’s like that. Enjoy!
But the issues raised in this case are more complicated than The Onion’s colorful defense of parody and satire—if not with respect to plaintiff Novak’s conduct itself, then with regard to broader questions, both social and legal, on the subjects of humor and gullible people.
Background: Novak Mocks the Parma Police Department on Facebook
In March of 2016, Anthony Novak created a bogus Facebook page designed to resemble (though not precisely match) the page for the City of Parma Police Department. He then published a handful of outlandish posts that any reasonable person should recognize as satire. For instance, one post announced a “Pedophile reform event” with “puzzles and quizzes” stating that upon successful completion of the day’s activities, participants would be removed from the sex offenders list.
The police department naturally received a few phone calls from Parma citizens, and after officers investigated, Novak was arrested, tried, and ultimately acquitted on charges that he had violated an Ohio state law prohibiting the use of a computer to “interrupt” or “disrupt” police operations. According to the petition for cert at the Supreme Court, the fake Facebook page was online for twelve hours and a total of six posts were published.
After Novak’s acquittal on the criminal charges, he filed a civil suit against the arresting officers, the department, and the city, alleging that the investigation and arrest had been retaliatory in nature and violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights on the basis that the enforcement actions stemmed solely from his protected right to mock public officials. A district court held, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, that Novak’s complaints failed to meet the standards to show the officers’ intent to cause harm and that, within the four corners of the law, the officers did not abrogate their qualified immunity from suit. In its conclusion, however, the appellate court stated …
But granting the officers qualified immunity does not mean their actions were justified or should be condoned. Indeed, it is cases like these when government officials have a 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. And from the beginning, any one of the officials involved could have allowed “the entire story to turn out differently,” simply by saying “No.” Bari Weiss, Some Thoughts About Courage, Common Sense (Oct. 19, 2021). Unfortunately, no one did.
Indeed. Even if Novak caused some limited “disruption” to the department (e.g., fielding calls from complaining or confused citizens), it should have been obvious that the content of the Facebook page was intended as satire rather than intended to “interrupt” police operations in the spirit of the broadly written state law. That all the fuss was over six posts online for twelve hours is an even stronger indictment against the officials’ decisions leading to prosecution, which justifies a fair assumption that arrest was both retaliatory and unconstitutional. The questions Novak presents to the Court are as follows:
- Whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for arresting an individual based solely on speech parodying the government, so long as no case has previously held the particular speech is protected.
- Whether the Court should reconsider the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The Sixth Circuit reasonably, if reluctantly, found that Novak did not prove that the officers investigated him solely on the basis of his protected speech. Instead, it held that the officers presented sufficient (if thin) probable cause to indicate that he had violated the state “disruption” law, and two magistrate judges granted warrants, and a DA independently proceeded with an indictment. So, SCOTUS may not agree that Novak’s case is ripe for the qualified immunity and speech questions presented. On the other hand, the petition describes a relevant circuit split thus:
The Sixth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits grant officials qualified immunity for First Amendment violations disguised as searches and seizures justified by probable cause under broadly written laws. In those circuits, censorship-by-arrest prevails. Three other circuits prioritize speech over immunity. The Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits look beyond pretext and deny qualified immunity to officials who should have known that their actions violated the First Amendment.
While we wait to see whether the Court will agree to hear this case, the serious intent behind The Onion’s hilarious brief raises some complicated questions if we look beyond Novak’s short career as a parodist in this instance.
The Onion makes the broad argument that “reasonable people” do not need warning labels to identify parody—that indeed parody depends on impersonating the serious or the real. “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,” the brief states. It would, therefore, be anathema for persons in power, like police, to require some kind of notice in order to distinguish protected parody from illegal impersonation—let alone impersonation with intent to cause harm.
The Onion is, of course, right about parody as an expressive form, but the question of impersonation has become complicated in an era when mass media tools are available to anyone—to say nothing of what it currently means to be a “reasonable reader” of mass media. The Sixth Circuit, for instance, affirms that impersonating police is not protected speech “for good reason” and further notes by example the “mayhem that a scam IRS or State Department website could cause.”
In a different but related context, it would be a travesty if Alex Jones could successfully argue that InfoWars is all “opinion and hyperbole” and that he is, therefore, immunized against recourse for the wanton harm he and his fans have caused the victims of the Sandy Hook murders. Not all potentially criminal speech can be made lawful by arguing some variation of the “just kidding” defense; and in the digital age, a “prankster” does not need a plurality of idiots to do a great deal of damage.
So, although I agree with The Onion that most people probably know parody when they see it, we must acknowledge that unreasonable readers abound and are living a post-parody existence that is barely literate. Content that might be assumed parody in another era turns out to be prophesy to many contemporary Americans. How is Alex Jones anything other than a joke? Ditto Pizzagate, QAnon, Mike (the pillow guy) Lindell, Steve Bannon, Marjorie Greene, the stolen election narrative, FOX News, Donald Trump, or the sincere and persistent belief that children are being harvested by Hollywood stars to make adrenochrome?
So, it is not easy to fully endorse The Onion’s premise that people have a solid grasp of the ridiculous, or that the ridiculous is easily discernable from the truth these days. Novak’s phony Facebook page, though minor and fleeting, reminds us how muddy the distinction is between lampoon and headline news. A “Pedophile reform event” may be obviously sardonic to most readers, but in a world where real people would force a child rape victim to remain pregnant, there is arguably nothing so wild the parodist can invent that does not require confirmation against fact.
So, although the officials involved in Novak’s case did not exercise common sense (as the Sixth Circuit states), the lines separating parody of public figures, outlandish lies about public figures, and the actual conduct of public figures are exhaustingly blurry—especially when the tools to spoof the real thing are available to anyone with a computer and a motive to cause mischief. Near the conclusion of The Onion’s brief, it states:
… grafting onto the reasonable-reader test a requirement that parodists explicitly disclaim their own pretense to reality is a disservice to the American public. It assumes that ordinary readers are less sophisticated and more humorless than they actually are.
It would indeed be folly to require the parodist to “disclaim his own pretense,” but it is not quite true that we can rely solely on our sophistication and sense of humor. When a friend on social media shares a real story about something balls-out crazy, don’t they often label it, “Not from The Onion.”? In fact, The Onion’s generic status in this regard partly betrays its argument about disclaimers because its brand is a flag telling readers that parody and satire are present.
It is hardly original to say that we are awash in so much conspiracy theory and crime against reason that it is often hard to imagine how the writers at The Onion hope to compete. The day Kellyanne Conway said the words “alternative facts” with a straight face on national television, many of us expected satirists everywhere to throw their pens, if not themselves, out the window. And that story was a mere party trick compared to the astonishing self-parodying events that have transpired since. So, with a deep bow to the craftsmanship in The Onion’s amicus brief, I think it is fair to say that even reasonable, comedy-literate people can be forgiven these days for wanting some assurance that what they are reading is indeed a joke.
 I chose these words because one of FOX News’s defense in its litigation with Dominion is that the lies it reported about corrupted voting machines are “hyperbole and opinion.”