'The Onion' gets serious about parody in filing to US Supreme Court

Satirical news site writes in support of man who was arrested for making fun of Ohio police department on social media

Lawyers for satirical news organisation 'The Onion' wrote a filing to the US Supreme Court in support of a man who was arrested after he made fun of a local police department on social media. Reuters
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Satirical news site The Onion took a serious step to defend parody, filing a brief to the US Supreme Court in support of a man who was arrested and later acquitted for making fun of police on social media.

“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 website's lawyers wrote in a court filing submitted on Monday.

“This brief is submitted in the interest of at least mitigating their future punishment.”

The court filing doesn't entirely keep a straight face, calling the federal judiciary “total Latin dorks”.

The Onion jokingly wrote that it began as a newspaper in 1756, employs more than 350,000 people, “enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion” and is “the single most powerful and influential organisation in human history”.

The Supreme Court case involves Anthony Novak, who was arrested after he spoofed the Parma, Ohio, police force in a parody page he created on Facebook that was made to look like the official account.

The posts were published over 12 hours and included an announcement of new police hiring “strongly encouraging minorities to not apply”. Another post promoted a fake event in which child sex offenders could be “removed from the sex offender registry and accepted as an honorary police officer”.

A copy of the parody Facebook page at the centre of the lawsuit. Photo: Institute for Justice

After he was acquitted, Mr Novak sued the police for violating his constitutional rights. A federal appeals court threw out the lawsuit, ruling that the officers have “qualified immunity”.

Qualified immunity protects police officers from being sued.

Lawyers for The Onion said it was concerned by the appellate court's ruling.

Parodists employed by the site, which “pokes its fingers” at the governments of Iran, China and the US, were concerned that the ruling failed to hold government actors accountable, lawyers wrote.

The Onion argued that Mr Novak did not have to post a disclaimer on his Facebook parody page.

One issue is whether people might reasonably have believed that what they saw on Mr Novak's site was real.

“Put simply, for parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original,” The Onion said, noting its own tendency to mimic “the dry tone of an Associated Press news story”.

More than once, people have republished The Onion's claims as true, including when it reported in 2012 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was the sexiest man alive.

“The petition for certiorari should be granted, the rights of the people vindicated, and various historical wrongs remedied. The Onion would welcome any one of the three, particularly the first,” lawyers for The Onion wrote. Certiorari is a writ asking for a higher court to review the decision of a lower one.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: October 04, 2022, 8:50 PM
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