ONION SLICES SIXTH CIRCUIT

In what may be the greatest amicus brief in the history of United States jurisprudence (I have admittedly not read every amicus brief ever filed, so I hedged a little there) the Onion has taken the U.S. Court of Appeals to task for its recent ruling granting qualified immunity to police officers in Parma Ohio.  The officers arrested a local man – Anthony Novak – for making fun of them.  I’m not kidding.

Novak created a parody web site that mimicked the official Parma Police but included parody posts like the announcement of an “official stay inside and catch up with family day” to “reduce future crimes” during which anyone caught outside would be arrested.  The site also featured the satirical slogan “We no crime.”    Apparently, the Police Department received a handful of calls to its nonemergency line asking if the site was real.  Novak was charged with a felony under an Ohio statute that criminalizes using a computer to disrupt police operations.

A jury had the good sense to acquit Novak, but when Novak filed a civil lawsuit for damages against the cops, the 6th Circuit found they enjoyed “qualified immunity” in part because Novak didn’t make it sufficiently clear that his was a parody site.

Novak is taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  And that’s where the Onion comes in. It recently filed a friend of the court brief in support of Novak’s petition asking the Court to review the case.  Of course, rather than refer to the brief as a “friend of the court” brief we lawyers call it by its Latin name – an amicus curiae brief.  In the brief, the Onion comments on courts’ proclivity for the dead language, noting:

“Tu stultus es. You are dumb. These three Latin words have been The Onion’s motto and guiding light since it was founded in 1988 as America’s Finest News Source, leading its writers toward the paper’s singular purpose of pointing out that its readers are deeply gullible people. The Onion’s motto is central to this brief for two important reasons. First, it’s Latin. And The Onion knows that the federal judiciary is staffed entirely by total Latin dorks: They quote Catullus in the original Latin in chambers. They sweetly whisper “stare decisis” into their spouses’ ears. They mutter “cui bono” under their breath while picking up after their neighbors’ dogs. So The Onion knew that, unless it pointed to a suitably Latin rallying cry, its brief would be operating far outside the Court’s vernacular.”

And the brief is quite explicit about what it wants from Scotus:  “[t]he 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.”  As it notes, “[t]he 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.”

Ultimately, the Onion’s brief establishes the point that parody not only ought not be compelled to issue a disclaimer, but the very act of issuing the disclaimer would rob parody of its power.  It is a compelling, hilarious piece of legal writing and I hope my readers will take the time to check it out.

Mark Twain once said “Show me a man who knows what’s funny and I’ll show you a man who knows what’s not.”  I hope the men (and women) Justices indeed know what’s funny and that they ultimately rule that the Parma Police Department’s prosecution of Novak is no laughing matter.