'Tu stultus es.' The Onion wades into Supreme Court case with legal argument crafted as parody

WASHINGTON – Not just anybody can get away with making an argument at the Supreme Court by calling the court's staff "Latin dorks."

But then again, The Onion is a special kind of amicus curiae.

The Onion, a well-known satirical publication based in Chicago, filed a 23-page legal brief at the Supreme Court on Monday that captured the attention of court watchers even on the busy first day of the high court's new term. The underlying case involves an Ohio man who was arrested after creating an  online parody to mock his local police department.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, The Onion is supporting the man as only The Onion could. After describing itself as "the world's leading news publication" with a "towering standard of excellence," the publication goes on to explain how parody works, through parody.

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"Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government? This was a surprise to America’s Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team," the publication told the court.

"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."

The Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2022.
The Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2022.

Throughout the brief, The Onion pokes fun at the law's propensity for Latin. 

"Tu stultus es. You are dumb. These three Latin words have been The Onion’s motto and guiding light since it was founded in 1988," the brief reads. "The Onion’s motto is central to this brief for two important reasons. First, it’s Latin. And The Onion knows that the federal judiciary is staffed entirely by total Latin dorks."

Institute for Justice: The Onion makes a serious point. Police violated Ohio man's rights for mocking them.

The question before the court is slightly more nuanced than The Onion's brief summary: Anthony Novak was arrested after creating a parody Facebook page in 2016 to mock his local police department in Parma, Ohio. The crime: a state law that makes it illegal to use a computer to disrupt police functions. He was acquitted by a jury.

Novak then filed dozens of claims against police and the city, alleging violations of the First and Fourth Amendments. The Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, however, sided with the police, finding they were entitled to what's known as qualified immunity – a legal doctrine that protects police from liability for civil rights violations in many circumstances.

The appeals court reasoned the officers could reasonably have believed that some of the postings were not protected speech and were therefore fair grounds for the arrest.

The Onion's brief will bring added attention to a case that is very much in an early stage. The city has not yet formally responded to the appeal, and the justices haven't decided yet whether they will hear the case. The dispute is Novak v. City of Parma, Ohio.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Onion wades into Supreme Court case with argument as parody