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The Courts

It's not all fun and games.

An anonymous reader quotes a report from the New York Times: A man who was arrested over a Facebook parody aimed at his local police department is trying to take his case to the Supreme Court. He has sought help from an unlikely source, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Monday. "Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government?" the brief asked. "This was a surprise to America's Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team." The source is, of course, The Onion. Or, as the satirical website described itselfin the brief (PDF),"the single most powerful and influential organization in human history." The Parma, Ohio, area man in question, Anthony Novak, spent four days in jail over a Facebook page he created in 2016 that mocked his local police department. He was charged with using a computer to disrupt police functions, but a jury found him not guilty. Mr. Novak says his civil rights were violated, and he is trying to sue the city for damages. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year, saying that the police had qualified immunity, and an appeals court upheld that decision. Now the high court is reviewing his request to take up the matter. 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. [...]

On Tuesday, a lawyer representing Parma, Richard Rezie, said that the courts had dismissed Mr. Novak's lawsuit as groundless and agreed that his rights had not been violated. The judges "did not base their opinions on parody, freedom of speech, or the need for a disclaimer," Mr. Rezie said, adding that Mr. Novak "went beyond mimicry" when he reproduced a police warning about his fake page, but claimed that the Parma site was the fake and his was the "official" page. "Falsely copying an official warning along with a claim to be the authentic Facebook page is not parody," Mr. Rezie said, adding that Mr. Novak also deleted comments from readers who realized his page was fake. In Mr. Jaicomo's view, The Onion's brief used parody itself to make the point that parody is important and protected speech.

"The Onion cannot stand idly by in the face of a ruling that threatens to disembowel a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, that is particularly potent in the realm of political debate, and that, purely incidentally, forms the basis of The Onion's writers' paychecks," the brief said. It pointed to The Onion's history of blatantly ridiculous headlines: "Fall Canceled After 3 Billion Seasons." "Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up in Harry Potter Craze." "Kitten Thinks of Nothing but Murder All Day." A footnote reads "See Mar-a-Lago Assistant Manager Wondering if Anyone Coming to Collect Nuclear Briefcase from Lost and Found, The Onion, Mar. 27, 2017." The brief also said that the case posed a threat to The Onion's business model. "This was only the latest occasion on which the absurdity of actual events managed to eclipse what The Onion's staff could make up," it said. "Much more of this, and the front page of The Onion would be indistinguishable from The New York Times."

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