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The Onion Files Parody Brief to Supreme Court in Defense of Speech Rights

“For parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original,” the company said in its legal filing.

Pedestrians walk by an Onion news rack on May 5, 2009, in San Francisco, California.

The Onion, a parody news organization that bills itself as “America’s Finest News Source,” has filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case involving the suppression of a man’s speech rights after he parodied his local police department.

Anthony Novak created a Facebook page six years ago in which he made blatantly fake posts pretending to be the police department from his hometown in Parma, Ohio. In response, the department arrested Novak, alleging that he committed a criminal felony by using his computer to “disrupt” or “interrupt” police functions.

Novak was acquitted of those charges in a jury trial. He then filed a lawsuit against the police department, arguing that his First Amendment rights to speech and his Fourth Amendment protections against improper searches had been violated. The case made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which sided with the department and ruled that his lawsuit could not proceed, citing qualified immunity standards that shield police from civil lawsuits.

Novak has appealed his case to the Supreme Court, which has not yet indicated whether or not they will hear it. He argues that the Court must determine, once and for all, whether “censorship-by-arrest” should prevail and if the doctrine of qualified immunity should apply to police officers who violate speech rights.

The Onion, a parody newspaper that was founded in 1988 (though it jokingly claims it can trace its founding back much further), filed an amicus curiae (or “friend of the court”) brief to the Supreme Court this week, siding with Novak and saying that a writ of certiorari should be granted to hear his case.

The brief reads much like the articles that appear on The Onion’s website.

The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national, international, and local news events,” the publication said in its legal filing. “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.”

The company took great pains to explain why parody should be protected speech — and noted that parodies are often closer to the truth than some might think. In 2017, for example, the site published an article titled “Mar-a-Lago Assistant Manager Wondering if Anyone Coming to Collect Nuclear Briefcase from Lost and Found,” years ahead of the current Trump document scandal that the Department of Justice is now investigating.

The Onion files this brief to protect its continued ability to create fiction that may ultimately merge into reality,” the company said.

“‘Ohio Police Officers Arrest, Prosecute Man Who Made Fun of Them on Facebook’ might sound like a headline ripped from the front pages of The Onion — albeit one that’s considerably less amusing because its subjects are real,” the company went on.

The Onion argued against the idea that all Novak had to do was write “parody” or otherwise indicate that the Facebook page was satire in order to avoid prosecution.

“For parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original,” the brief states, adding that the filing “would not have worked quite as well if this brief had said the following: ‘Hello there, reader, we are about to write an amicus brief about the value of parody. Buckle up, because we’re going to be doing some fairly outré things, including commenting on this text’s form itself!'”

Regardless of whether or not the Court takes action, The Onion said it would “continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power” through its parody work.

“And it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15- minute increments in an exercise yard,” the company stated in one of the final paragraphs of its legal filing.

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