Anthony Novak was thrown in jail and charged with a felony for mocking an Ohio police department with a parody Facebook page. Now represented by the Institute for Justice, Novak has filed a cert petition urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take his case.
In a fitting demonstration of the Streisand Effect, the Parma Police Department’s attempt to squash a local satirist has turned them into a national laughing-stock. First, The Onion filed its first-ever amicus brief with the Supreme Court, which savagely mocked Parma police.
Less than a month later, they were joined by The Babylon Bee, which describes itself as “the world’s most popular news site, bringing deadly serious, 100% accurate stories to the public’s attention” and has so far “published over 10,000 articles containing a total of no fewer than two jokes.” (Calvinist dogs were one of them.)
“Parody has a unique capacity to speak truth to power and to cut its subjects down to size,” The Babylon Bee, represented by Emmett Robinson, asserted in its amicus brief. “When parody is imperiled, citizens are deprived of one of their most effective means of criticizing the government.”
But unless the Supreme Court takes Novak’s case, “The Bee and its writers could be held criminally liable for many, if not most, of the articles The Bee publishes.” For any Ohio prosecutors who might be reading, The Bee cited specific examples, like “Cop On Laptop Protecting Community From Drivers On Cell Phones” or “Uvalde Police Criticize Indiana Mall Armed Citizen For Not Waiting Around Outside For An Hour.”
Not to be undone by that “cute little upstart known as The Onion,” which penned only one amicus in this case, The Bee published another amicus brief that sided with the Parma Police Department, though this one wasn’t actually filed with the Supreme Court.
“It is essential to protect those with coercive power who wield it for self-preserving ends,” this brief stentoriously declared. “Our society can only function if people get their information from a tightly controlled source that has never lied to us, like the government or the police.”
“Abuse of the First Amendment should not be tolerated,” the brief continued. It further chided Novak for attempting to “turn that provision into a ‘living’ amendment stretched beyond its original meaning to include humor and laughter. This is dangerous, as it is clear from a close reading of the Constitution that laughter is never explicitly mentioned.” Indeed, “when the First Amendment was written, jokes hadn’t been invented yet.”
“Much as how the Second Amendment was only intended to protect the citizenry’s right to bear muzzle-loading muskets and not fully semi-automatic 30-magazine-clip assault pistol grip firearms, so the First Amendment cannot be applied to parody Facebook pages,” the brief concluded.
What became a major First Amendment case started out while Novak was waiting for the bus in March 2016. He decided to make a fake Facebook page lampooning the Parma Police Department.
One post announced a noon curfew. Another was a fake job posting that was “strongly encouraging minorities to not apply” to become police officers. Other posts advertised an abortion van, a pedophile reform event, and arrests for those who tried to feed homeless people. (Wait, that last one did happen in Arizona.)
Alerted by a few citizens who didn’t get the joke, the actual Parma Police Department posted a notice on its own Facebook page warning about the fake. Novak then reposted that warning to his page.
Even though the posts were clearly satire, the police threatened a criminal investigation. That prompted Novak to take the page down. It had only been up for half a day.
Yet Parma didn’t relent. Officers obtained a search warrant that demanded Facebook dox Novak. Now that police knew the offender, they just had to find an offense. Eventually, prosecutors dusted off an Ohio law that makes it a fourth-degree felony to “use any computer…to disrupt, interrupt, or impair the functions of any police, fire, educational, commercial, or governmental operations.”
Parma police obtained two more warrants, this time to arrest Novak, search his home, and seize any device that could connect to the Internet. He spent four days behind bars. Novak’s case went to trial, but thankfully a jury acquitted him.
Afterwards, Novak sued. Since parody has long been protected by the First Amendment, his case should have been an easy win.
Instead, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed his lawsuit in April. According to the court, the officers “reasonably believed they were acting within the law,” and so they were entitled to “qualified immunity” and couldn’t be sued.
“No one should be arrested for making jokes online and no one feels that more than people who do it for a living,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “We thank both The Babylon Bee and The Onion for stepping up to defend free speech.”