Seriously, Here Are the Funniest Parts of the Onion Legal Brief to the Supreme Court

Jokes shouldn't mean jail.
Seriously, Here Are the Funniest Parts of the Onion Legal Brief to the Supreme Court

The world is now safe for The Babylon Bee and its ilk because comedy is legal again, shouted  Elon Musk after buying Twitter a few weeks back. (Say, how’s that going?) The wonky comedy nerd, who has been known to crack wise with pilfered punchlines on Twitter himself, promised to take the muzzle off offensive comedy. That lasted about twenty minutes.

Understandable. If Kathy Griffin suddenly starts calling herself “Elon Musk,” how in the world would anyone be able to tell the difference? This clunky, ineffective, and downright stupid impulse to label parody with a big, flashing PARODY sticker isn’t exclusive to Musk, however. 

Anthony Novak, an amateur comedian from Parma, Ohio, was actually thrown in jail for creating a Facebook parody page that poked fun at his local police department. Despite the page’s motto, “We no crime,” clearly labeling the whole exercise as comedy, the local cops searched his home, seized his electronics, and charged him with a felony for ‘disrupting’ police operations, at least in part because the page did not explicitly say “parody.” A jury, apparently made up of sane people, pronounced him not guilty, but Novak wasn’t done. He filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Parma police. Somewhat unbelievably, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Novak and parody, declaring that the police officers had qualified immunity. 

The case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court in an attempt to hold the officers accountable. It’s sort of a big deal--if cops can imprison their critics with impunity, all kinds of our rights are at risk. 

Enter The Onion, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of its “4.3 trillion readers” to convince the Supreme Court to take the case. (Disclosure: I have been a contributor to The Onion since 2006). Why would America’s Finest News Source get involved? “Partially, because our livelihoods depend on putting parody out into the world and not being arrested for it,” head writer Mike Gillis recently wrote in The Atlantic. But jokes aside, The Onion argued that parody is a crucial free speech right that’s worth defending, a weapon used to “take apart an authoritarian cult of personality, point out the rhetorical tricks politicians use to mislead their constituents, and even undercut a government institution’s real-world attempts at propaganda.”

Without parody, for example, how could The Onion write stories (in 2017!) predicting future events that have world-altering ramifications?

The Onion

Here then are the four arguments that The Onion laid out in its hilarious legal brief, with the funniest bits pulled out for your amusement.

Parody Functions By Tricking People Into Thinking That It Is Real


The Onion leads off its first argument with its Latin motto: Tu stultus es. (Translation: You are dumb.) That’s because “The Onion knows that the federal judiciary is staffed entirely by total Latin dorks: They quote Catullus in the original Latin in chambers. They sweetly whisper “stare decisis” into their spouses’ ears. They mutter “cui bono” under their breath while picking up after their neighbors’ dogs.” 

Parody tricks readers into thinking they’re consuming something serious, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath them. Here’s an example from the brief: “Let’s assume that it is a newspaper headline—maybe one written by The Onion—that begins in this familiar way: ‘Supreme Court Rules …’ Already, one can see how this works as a parodic setup, leading readers to think that they’re reading a newspaper story … What moves this into the realm of parody is when The Onion completes the headline with the punchline—the thing that mocks the newspaper format.”

The Onion

(Implying that the Supreme Court kicks ass as part of your argument? Chef’s kiss, Onion.)

Because Parody Mimics “The Real Thing,” It Has The Unique Capacity To Critique The Real Thing


Onion parodies, even at their most absurd, are often mistaken for actual news by those blinded by their own pomposity. The brief offers this example from 2012, which was run as actual news by China’s state-run agency:

The Onion

“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.”

A Reasonable Reader Does Not Need A Disclaimer To Know That Parody Is Parody


Here, The Onion proves its point with Novak’s own Facebook parody, which included posts that “advertised that the Parma Police Department was hosting a ‘pedophile reform event’ in which successful participants could be removed from the sex offender registry and become honorary members of the department after completing puzzles and quizzes; that the department had discovered an experimental technique for abortions and would be providing them to teens for free in a police van; that the department was soliciting job applicants but that minorities were ‘strongly encourag(ed)’ not to apply; and that the department was banning city residents from feeding homeless people in ‘an attempt to have the homeless population eventually leave our City due to starvation.’” 

In other words, says The Onion, if you don’t get that Novak was joking, that’s on you, boo.

It Should Be Obvious That Parodists Cannot Be Prosecuted For Telling A Joke With A Straight Face


“This is the fifteenth page of a convoluted legal filing intended to deconstruct the societal implications of parody, so the reader’s attention is almost certainly wandering. That’s understandable. So here is a paragraph of gripping legal analysis to ensure that every jurist who reads this brief is appropriately impressed by the logic of its argument and the lucidity of its prose: Bona vacantia. De bonis asportatis. Writ of certiorari. De minimis. Jus accrescendi. Forum non conveniens. Corpus juris. Ad hominem tu quoque. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Quod est demonstrandum. Actus reus. Scandalum magnatum. Pactum reservati dominii.”

So The Onion mocks Latin legalese bullshit to make its point. Funny! But the joke “would not have worked quite as well if this brief had said the following: ‘Hello there, reader, we are about to write an amicus brief about the value of parody. Buckle up, because we’re going to be doing some fairly outré things, including commenting on this text’s form itself!’”

Ruining the joke is one thing. But more importantly, explaining that something is parody takes away its teeth, rendering it useless as social commentary. Satire is important! It’s crucial to our democracy! And that’s why “The Onion intends to continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power. And it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15-minute increments in an exercise yard.”

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