The humor site The onion filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in defense of the very concept of parody, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the legal brief is a fun meta-required read.
The 18 page file contains plenty of the searing satire the Chicago-based news website is known for, beginning with claims that “The onion is the world’s leading news publication offering highly acclaimed, universally respected coverage of breaking national, international and local news events,” before turning to the history of the parody and poking fun at the very form of the legal document, including “a paragraph of fascinating legal analysis”, written entirely in Latin.
The document is the funniest legal document we’ve ever read, but the reason The onion submitting the brief is no laughing matter. Amicus curiae briefs, or “friend of the court” briefs, are filed by an entity with a strong interest in or views on the subject matter of a lawsuit, even though they are not a party to it. It was filed to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case of Anthony Novak, a Parma, Ohio man who spent four days in jail for a Facebook page he created in 2016 that mocked a local police department.
Novak’s page includes posts about how police plan to ban city residents from feeding homeless people in an “attempt to cause the homeless population to eventually leave our city due to hunger,” among other ridiculous claims. The police didn’t find the page funny, but as the brief claims, a parody doesn’t have to be funny to protect free speech. “Indeed, ‘Ohio cops arrest, chase man who mocked them on Facebook’ might sound like a headline ripped from the front pages of The onion,” it said.
While jurors found Novak not guilty, Novak sued the department, claiming it violated his civil rights. A US appeals court sided with the police, and Novak appealed the case to the US Supreme Court last week.
Enter The onion. Or as the document says, “The onion cannot stand idly by in the face of a decision that threatens to eviscerate a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, that is particularly powerful in the realm of political debate and that, quite coincidentally, forms the basis of The onionwriters’ wages.’
The document was created using the The onion managing editor Jordan LaFleur, along with D. Andrew Portinga and Miller Johnson, two Grand Rapids attorneys.
“One of the points they wanted to make is that if you’re a comedy writer, you can’t tell people you’re going to tell them a joke before you tell them a joke,” Portinga said New York Times. Chapter titles include “Parody works by tricking people into thinking it’s real” and “It should be obvious that parodists can’t be prosecuted for telling a joke with a straight face.”
It ends with this ring: “The onion intends to continue its socially valuable role, bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power. … And he’d much prefer that sunlight not to be metered out to his writers in 15-minute increments in an exercise yard.