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‘The most powerful organization in human history’ – satire site The Onion files brief with US Supreme Court in freedom-of-speech case

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The Onion

The Onion

The Onion

It's not every day the US Supreme Court is graced with a brief from a party describing itself as "the single most powerful and influential organization in human history." But that's what the justices received Monday, with the docketing of an atypical friend-of-court brief from parody website The Onion.

The brief is laced with dramatic hyperbole, jabs at the self-seriousness of the legal profession, and outlandish, obviously false declarations of fact. Filing a parody brief was of course the point, the site's lawyers explained, as they threw their support behind an Ohio man arrested for publishing a Facebook page making fun of his local police department.

"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 site's lawyer Stephen van Stempvoort wrote.

The case involves petitioner Anthony Novak, who faced criminal charges linked to the police department parody page he made on Facebook. He was briefly jailed after his arrest and went to trial, where he was acquitted.

Novak filed a civil suit against the arresting officers and the city of Parma, Ohio, arguing that his constitutional rights were violated. Novak and his lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court to step in after a federal appeals court ruled the officers were protected against being sued by a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. Justices have yet to decide whether to hear the case.

The Onion routinely skewers the high court, and refused to take a more staid approach when directly addressing the justices. The filing mixes sarcasm, self-deprecation, and jokes with legal arguments and analysis more typical of a traditional Supreme Court brief.

The filing begins by mimicking the typical start of an amicus brief, in which a party explains its interest in the case and why the justices should consider its input. The Onion facetiously claimed to have "daily readership of 4.3 trillion" and told the court that 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."

It pokes fun at the US legal system's use of Latin phrases, noting that The Onion's own motto is "Tu stultus es," which translates to, "You are dumb." The "federal judiciary is staffed entirely by total Latin dorks," van Stempvoort writes, suggesting judges "sweetly whisper 'stare decisis' into their spouses' ear."

The brief even argues its writers "have garnered a sterling reputation for accurately forecasting future events," citing a 2017 satire post that presaged the real federal investigation into former President Donald Trump's handling of government records at his Mar-a-Lago home.

Can't Take a Joke

The Onion brief also highlights what it contends are the not-so-funny stakes of a legal system that doesn't protect people who take on the powerful via comedy.

"The Onion regularly pokes its finger in the eyes of repressive and authoritarian regimes, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, and domestic presidential administrations," van Stempvoort wrote. "So The Onion's professional parodists were less than enthralled to be confronted with a legal ruling that fails to hold government actors accountable for jailing and prosecuting a would-be humorist simply for making fun of them."

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The site pushed back on the idea that humor needs advance warning, arguing that would "pop the balloon" of parody from the start and assume "ordinary readers are less sophisticated and humorless than they actually are." The brief unpacks the machinations of this type of comedy, explaining that the idea is to first trick the reader into thinking the content is real "and then allowing them to laugh at their own gullibility."

Van Stempvoort referred a request for comment to a spokesperson for The Onion, which did not immediately respond.


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