A brief reminder that parody is protected speech and should stay that way

People sometimes need to be reminded that parody is protected speech. The thin-skinned police department in Parma, Ohio, arrested Anthony Novak for building a fake Facebook page meant to mock the agency’s efforts to combat crime. Novak spent four days in jail because of the page he created in 2016.

His criminal trial ended in a non-guilty verdict, as the jury found he did not use his computer to disrupt police functions. However, Novak planned a civil suit, arguing that his civil rights were violated, but lower courts dismissed his claims.

Now he’s going before the Supreme Court with some support from “America’s Finest News Source:”

One of Mr. Novak’s lawyers, Patrick Jaicomo, said in an interview Monday that last month he contacted Jordan LaFlure, the managing editor of The Onion, which is based in Chicago, to make him aware of the case and see if he would be interested in helping raise attention.

“They heard the story, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, this is something that could really put all of our people in the crosshairs if we rub someone the wrong way with one of our stories,’” Mr. Jaicomo said.

In a filing that read in places like one of its articles, The Onion laid out why it believes the authorities in Ohio had acted unconstitutionally, sprinkling in sincere arguments in defense of parody while riddling the rest of the text with moments of jest and hubris — claiming, for example, a readership of 4.3 trillion, and also boasting that it “owns and operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes.”

I’m having a hard time imagining the 5-4 stick-up-the-keester majority being persuaded by this brief, although I guess I could envision Justice Brett Kavanaugh paging through this while drinking a beer and taking a dump. (Sorry to my more “visual” readers…)

I’ve been surprised by court rulings before, including the Mahanoy v. B.L. 8-1 decision, however, the Court recently seems generally grumpy toward free expression these days. In ruling against the MyPillow Guy,  Gorsuch and Thomas grumbled again that the court should reconsider Times v. Sullivan, a case that makes it really hard for public figures to win libel suits. Also, I’m more than a little concerned that we’ve got about seven self-professed Christians on the bench, given that the key lawsuit protecting parody involves a porno mag and a joke about the Rev. Jerry Falwell banging his mother behind an outhouse.

(Of course, there’s also the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision. I’m not getting into the weeds on that, but let’s just say the Court seems to be relying on this precedent in dealing with the whole concept of “stare decisis.”)

I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys being mocked, but most folks know to take it in stride and get over it. I have met plenty of people who enjoy mockery as a form of humor, which is why insult comics get some of the biggest laughs and any man over the age of 40 can probably tell you which copy of Mad Magazine was the first one they ever purchased. (June 1987, Star Trek IV cover for me…)

At the college level, as much as I broke out in hives every time a student said, “Hey, let’s do an April Fool’s Edition!” I would prefer them to operate under the blanket of protection afforded them by the decision in the Flynt case. (One year, the student newspaper here Photoshopped the chancellor’s head onto the famous Demi Moore Vanity Fair image. Something tells me that didn’t go over too well…) Of all the thin-skinned, hair-trigger-offended, self-important people I’ve met in my life, far too many of them reside in academia, so having no protection for parody would put the kids directly in the soup far too often.

One of the best explanations of why speech that people don’t like came through in yet another clip that focuses on the apparent patron saint of this blog:

If George Washington can handle the donkey cartoon, Reagan didn’t jail Trudeau and the highest court in the land could see value in mocking Jerry Falwell, the police in Parma, Ohio could have just let Anthony Novak be. The fact they didn’t should earn them some form of punishment.

And maybe a little more protected mockery…


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