The Onion’s Supreme Court Amicus Brief Defending Parody

Speaking of entertaining legal documents that address serious issues, I’ve been meaning to link to the amicus brief filed by The Onion on behalf of Anthony Novak, who is suing the police department of Parma, Ohio in a case now before the Supreme Court. Long story short, Novak created a parody Facebook account for the police department; the police arrested him and he spent four days in jail, simply for having mocked them; and when Novak subsquently attempted to sue the police department for civil damages, the Sixth Circuit court of appeals held that the police could not be held responsible under the bullshit doctrine of “qualified immunity”.

The Onion’s brief begins itself as parody:

The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly
acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national,
international, and local news events. Rising from its humble
beginnings as a print newspaper in 1756, The Onion now enjoys a
daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single
most powerful and influential organization in human history.

In addition to maintaining a towering standard of excellence to
which the rest of the industry aspires, The Onion supports more
than 350,000 full- and part-time journalism jobs in its numerous
news bureaus and manual labor camps stationed around the world,
and members of its editorial board have served with distinction in
an advisory capacity for such nations as China, Syria, Somalia,
and the former Soviet Union. On top of its journalistic pursuits,
The Onion also owns and operates the majority of the world’s
transoceanic shipping lanes, stands on the nation’s leading edge
on matters of deforestation and strip mining, and proudly conducts
tests on millions of animals daily.

But while the brief contains many jokes, it is no joke itself and forcefully makes the point that parody is protected speech because it can be so effective:

Time and again, that’s what has occurred with The Onion’s news
stories. In 2012, for example, The Onion proclaimed that Kim
Jong-un was the sexiest man alive. China’s state-run news agency
republished The Onion’s story as true alongside a slideshow of the
dictator himself in all his glory. The Fars Iranian News Agency
uncritically picked up and ran with The Onion’s headline “Gallup
Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad To Obama.” Domestically, the
number of elected leaders who are still incapable of parsing The
Onion’s coverage as satire is daunting, but one particular
example stands out: Republican Congressman John Fleming, who
believed that he needed to warn his constituents of a dangerous
escalation of the pro-choice movement after reading The Onion’s
headline “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex.”

The point of all this is not that it is funny when deluded figures
of authority mistake satire for the actual news — even though
that can be extremely funny. Rather, it’s that the parody allows
these figures to puncture their own sense of self-importance by
falling for what any reasonable person would recognize as an
absurd escalation of their own views. In the political context,
the effect can be particularly pronounced. See Hustler Mag., Inc.
v. Falwell
, 485 U.S. 46, 53–55 (1988); see also Falwell v.
, 805 F.2d 484, 487 (4th Cir. 1986) (Wilkinson, J.,
dissenting from denial of rehearing) (“Nothing is more thoroughly
democratic than to have the high-and-mighty lampooned and

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