The Onion is fighting for the right to parody in the Supreme Court

Yyou don’t have to be a comedian to know that to explain a joke is to ruin a joke. However, satirical news site The onion he does just that, albeit reluctantly, in an effort to protect the right to tell these jokes without fear of arrest.

The self-proclaimed “world’s leading news publication” filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court this week in support of a man arrested and prosecuted for creating a parody Facebook page of the local police department. Anthony Novak’s civil rights lawsuit was dismissed by a district court in April of this year, prompting him to ask the Supreme Court to intervene, citing a violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

The case could provide an important test, in the country that gave the world Mark Twain, of the right of satirists to imitate their subjects without breaking the law.

The onionknown for his sardonic and irreverent headlines (“Kids, creepy middle-aged weirdos swept up in the Harry Potter craze”) and his use of humor to address serious issues like mass shootings (“There’s no way to prevent this,” he says only Nation where this regularly occurs”), filed a 23 page summary in support of Mr. Novak on Monday.

The brief is a spirited defense of parody as protected by the First Amendment. It is also, in part, a work of parody itself.

“As the planet’s leading parodists, The onionIts authors also have a vested interest in preventing political authorities from imprisoning humorists. This form is being submitted in the interest of at least mitigating their future punishment,” it said.

He further notes that “the federal judiciary is staffed entirely by Latin docs: They quote Catullus in the original Latin in chambers. They whisper sweetly”gaze decisis“in the ears of their husbands,” before declaring her writers “far more talented” than “hacker” Jonathan Swift.

The brief is a departure from the staid language of a standard amicus brief, but that’s exactly the point, according to its lead author, Mike Gillis, lead writer at The onion.

“I hope it’s taken in the spirit it’s intended to be, which is a sincere defense of parody, and why parody deserves this kind of historical space to operate, and why this should be a kind of blanket protection for all citizens of USA,” he said.The independent by phone this week.

The onionfounded in Wisconsin in 1988 as a small campus newspaper and grew in valuation500 million dollars in 2016, he learned about the case through a mutual friend of the publication’s managing editor who was connected to the case.

“Our legal team looked at it, our editorial team looked at it, and we decided that it was not only interesting on its merits, but also symbolic of the kind of protection we want to see parody law provide in the US. , and historically it has been offered in the US,” says Mr Gillis.

Gillis wrote most of the brief in one go, with input from The onionof his own legal team and Mr. Novak.

The brief focuses on the case of Mr. Novak, a resident of Parma, Ohio. In March 2016, Mr. Novak created a Facebook page that parodied the Parma Police Department page. After receiving nearly a dozen calls from members of the public who didn’t get the joke, Parma police arrested Novak, seized his electronics and charged him with a felony that criminalizes using a computer for disrupt police operations. Novak was prosecuted but acquitted at trial.

The case might have ended there, but when he filed a civil rights case over his arrest, it was dismissed by the Sixth Circuit. The court’s reasoning was that the police “could reasonably believe that some of Novak’s Facebook activity was not a prank,” in part because Mr. Novak “deleted[ed] comments that made it clear the page was fake.”

The onion, which has for years mocked politicians and other media outlets for mistaking its own satirical articles for genuine news, saw a hole in the court’s argument. He argues that the court’s requirement that Mr. Novak recognize his work as a parody defeats its very purpose.

“I think the Sixth Circuit’s decision seemed to misunderstand what parody is,” says Gillis. “The is imitating a thing. At first he tries to deceive the reader. Not entirely, but to give them a sense of being led down a path with a set-up and then hit with a punch line.”

The Onion republishes a story with the same headline every time there is a mass shooting in the US.

(Screengrab / The Onion)

As the brief notes: “The point is that, without the ability to make fun of someone, parody is functionally useless, deprived of the tools inscribed in its very etymology that allow it, again and again, to perform this rhetorically powerful ruse . : It adopts a certain form in order to criticize it from within’.

“Simply put, for parody to work, it must reasonably imitate the original,” he continues.

To prove this point, The onionHis amicus brief “pulls back the veil,” as Gillis describes it, on how its writers mimic the news outlets and leaders it satirizes. The first chapter of the argument includes an extensive history example The onion he could write: “The Supreme Court decides the rules of the Supreme Court” and explain why he imitates the hard-nosed style of the Associated Press.

“This rhetorical form creates the reader’s expectations of how the idiom will play out—expectations that clash with the content of the article,” he says.

The brief continues not simply as a defense of the method of parody, but as a purpose and force. Paradites, The onion he argues, “it can dismantle the cult of personality of an autocrat, highlight the rhetorical tricks politicians use to mislead their constituents, and even undermine the real propaganda efforts of a government institution.”

He points to several examples Onion The articles were being confused with the real thing by the very people they were making fun of. It is noted that in 2012 Onion article declaring Kim Yong-Un the sexiest man alive, for example, was picked up by the Chinese state news agency, along with a presentation. Republican Rep. John Fleming sounded the alarm for his constituents when he was picked up by a Onion story headlined: “Planned Parenthood Opens $8B Abortionplex.”

“The point of all this is not that it’s funny when misguided authority figures mistake satire for real news – although that can be extremely funny,” the publication said. “Rather, it’s that parody allows these figures to puncture their own sense of self-awareness by falling into what any reasonable person would recognize as an absurd escalation of their views.”

Gillis argues that parody protection is based on the idea of ​​a “reasonable reader.” This means: A parody does not need to be understood by All to be protected, only by a reasonable person.

“I brought this up in the brief, the idea that Kim Jong-un legitimately believed he was the sexiest man alive at the beginning of the benefit — that shows he’s not a rational person. But the average reader is perfectly able to see that this is ridiculous,” he says.

Gillis continues, saying that “the number of people who have fallen for our jokes is scary enough, but it weighs heavily on the deluded, the deeply confused, the propagandists and the authoritarians.”

“I think it’s because they live in this heightened world that they’ve created for themselves,” he adds. “And so when we produce a piece of satire that, it’s fueled by that rarefied air that they exist in. I think the Sixth Circuit is really underestimating the reader because what we’re doing wouldn’t be funny at all if people couldn’t see it in at some point.”

The onion’His intervention is rare, Gillis says, and done reluctantly.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see a comedian stand up and go through point by point because what he does is extremely important on a day-to-day basis. I think every once in a while it’s extremely interesting because it’s something that’s very rarely discussed,” he adds.

The question is: will the Supreme Court justices get the joke? It’s an institution not well known for its sense of humor, after all.

“Au contraire,” Gillis replies. “I think Clarence Thomas told a joke in 2013 and by all accounts it was hilarious.”

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