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By: Alexia Roney
The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national, international, and local news events. Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1756, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history…
So begins The Onion’s eloquent defense of parody in its Amicus Curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court – with its tongue firmly in its cheek.
The case is Novak v. City of Parma, 33 F.4th 296 (6th Cir. 2022). Plaintiff Anthony Novak sued several officers and the City of Parma, Ohio, for violating his civil rights when they prosecuted him for creating a parody Facebook page for the city police department. Id. at 302. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment, although hardly happy about it: “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.” Id. at 312. One is left with the impression that the Defendants’ actions were vindictive.
The Sixth Circuit’s opinion itself is worth a read as it struggles to balance free speech and prosecution under a statute that criminalizes the use of a computer to disrupt or impair police functions. Id. at 304 (“But there’s a catch: Protected speech cannot serve as the basis for probable cause”) (quotations omitted for clarity). But, at this point, Novak’s goal – and that of The Onion’s – is to snare the attention of the Supreme Court to Novak’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari. The Onion must convince the Supreme Court the decision in Novak v. City of Parma represents such a departure on the question of First Amendment free speech that it compels the Supreme Court to intervene.
In this, The Onion’s brief is a master class. Clothed in deliberately overwrought language that centers its argument on The Onion’s motto “Tu stultus es” (translation: “you are dumb”), The Onion casts the protection of Greek satirist Horace over Novak and demonstrates the grave importance parody, even of the cruder form, has played throughout history to call authority figures and presidents to account, “to puncture their own sense of self-importance by falling for what any reasonable person would recognize as an absurd escalation of their own views.” After breaking down how parody functions – a truly unfunny and serious analysis – The Onion asks the Supreme Court to respect the reasonable reader and trust that she is smart enough to differentiate between the real and the ridiculous. But after this serious turn, The Onion spouts off random Latin phrases to prove the “logic of its argument and the lucidity of its prose.”
And, in case any of the Justices miss the joke, the brief wryly remarks that “This brief itself went from a discussion of parody’s function …. to a curveball mocking the way legalese can be both impenetrably boring and belie the hollowness of a legal position.” In truth, it is impossible to do justice to this brief by explanation. It instead should be read, all twenty-two pages, in all its glory. A link to the brief is below. That said, The Onion holds one more unexpected turn, when its humor brings reality to the stakes of Novak’s arrest:
The Onion intends to continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power…. And it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15-minute increments in an exercise yard.
The Onion’s brief can be found here.