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The Onion Goes to the Supreme Court to Defend Free Parody

The Onion, El American

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The satirical website The Onion submitted a text to the Supreme Court in solidarity with a man who was arrested and prosecuted for mocking the police on social media; a case that seems to be a sufficiently alarming precedent for humorists.

In a brilliant justification of its arguments (moreover, replete with humor), The Onion states that its intention with the legal action is to “protect its continued ability to create fiction that may ultimately merge into reality.”

The humorous website makes it clear that it has an interest in preventing political authorities from sentencing comedians to prison, and “at least mitigating” future punishments against humorists who prove inconvenient to the powers that be.

“Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government?” The Onion asks in its introductory argument. “This was a surprise to America’s Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team. Indeed, “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 Onion comes to the defense of an unknown comedian

The case at issue is about Anthony Novak, a man who was arrested for playing a prank on the Parma, Ohio Police on Facebook. In the series of posts, Novak created a fake job offer at the police department in which he “strongly” encouraged minorities not to apply.

In another controversial post, Novak promoted a fake event in which he invited sex offenders, saying they would be removed from the sex offender registry and “accepted as honorary police officers.”

Although Novak was acquitted of charges, he sued the police for violating his constitutional rights. However, a federal appeals court said the officers responsible for his arrest had “qualified immunity” and dismissed the case.

When The Onion learned what happened to Novak, according to the court document, it was “justifiably concerned.” The media outlet offered multiple reasons, but the most “obvious” was that its “business model was threatened.” From its perspective, Novak’s case exceeded the degrees of absurdity that its staff strives for.

“The Onion regularly pokes its finger in the eyes of repressive and authoritarian regimes, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, and domestic presidential administrations,” the outlet justified. “So The Onion’s professional parodists were less than enthralled to be confronted with a legal ruling that fails to hold government actors accountable for jailing and prosecuting a would-be humorist simply for making fun of them.”

In addition, the satirical news website is concerned that the federal court ruling forced humorists to post a warning about the content of their pieces to let the audience know that it is a parody.

“Some forms of comedy don’t work unless the comedian is able to tell the joke with a straight face,” the text warned. “Parody is the quintessential example. Parodists intentionally inhabit the rhetorical form of their target in order to exaggerate or implode it—and by doing so demonstrate the target’s illogic or absurdity. Put simply, for parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original.”

In that sense, the outlet argues that this ruling would condition First Amendment protection for parody on an explicit warning that it is a fictional piece, which “would strip parody of the very thing that makes it function.”

“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,” continued the outlet in its arguments.

Finally, the media outlet asks the Supreme Court to hear its arguments and “vindicate” the rights of comedians.

Tomás Lugo, journalist and writer. Born in Venezuela and graduated in Social Communication. Has written for international media outlets. Currently living in Colombia // Tomás Lugo, periodista y articulista. Nacido en Venezuela y graduado en Comunicación Social. Ha escrito para medios internacionales. Actualmente reside en Colombia.

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