The clarion call of justice is sounding across America once again, thanks to the tireless efforts of its finest purveyor of made-up news.
The Onion, the long-running satirical publication, has filed a very real legal document with the US supreme court, urging it to take on a case centered on the right to parody. And in order to make a serious legal point, the filing does what the Onion does best, offering a big helping of total nonsense.
Claiming global Onion readership of 4.3 trillion, the filing describes the publication as “the single most powerful and influential organization in human history”. It’s the source of 350,000 jobs at its offices and “manual labor camps”, and it “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”.
With such power, why does the Onion feel the need to weigh in on a mundane court case? “To protect its continued ability to create fiction that may ultimately merge into reality,” the filing asserts. “The Onion’s writers also have a self-serving interest in preventing political authorities from imprisoning humorists. This brief is submitted in the interest of at least mitigating their future punishment.”
The outlet is concerned about the outcome of a case it describes in a headline: “Ohio Police Officers Arrest, Prosecute Man Who Made Fun of Them on Facebook”. It sounds like an Onion headline, the filing points out, but it’s not.
In 2016, Anthony Novak was arrested for making a Facebook page that parodied the local police page. He was charged with disrupting a public service but was acquitted. The next year, he sued the department, arguing it was retaliating against him for using his right to free speech, as Cleveland.com reported.
In May, a US appeals court backed the police in the case, a finding Novak’s lawyer said “sets dangerous precedent undermining free speech”. Last week, Novak appealed against the case to the supreme court, leading to the Onion’s filing – what’s known as an amicus brief, a filing by an outside party seeking to influence the court.
In one of its less amusing sections, the brief argues that the appeals court ruling “imperils an ancient form of discourse. The court’s decision suggests that parodists are in the clear only if they pop the balloon in advance by warning their audience that their parody is not true. But some forms of comedy don’t work unless the comedian is able to tell the joke with a straight face.”
The filing highlights the history of parody and its social function: “It adopts a particular form in order to critique it from within”. To demonstrate, the Onion cites one of its own greatest headlines: “Supreme court rules supreme court rules”.
The document serves as a rare glimpse behind the comedy curtain – an explanation of how jokes work – even as it serves as a more traditional legal document, pointing to relevant court cases and using words like “dispositive”.
The city of Parma has until 28 October to provide a response in a case that would be heard next year if the high court opts to consider it.
In the meantime, “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”.