A lawsuit can go forward for a man who created a Facebook page riddled with insensitive remarks that parodied an Ohio police department.
“Apple pie, baseball, and the right to ridicule the government. Each holds an important place in American history and tradition,” according to an opinion written by Judge Amul Thapar in the case.
Anthony Novak, the creator of the Facebook page and plaintiff, posted insensitive remarks including a fake ad for a “’Pedophile Reform Event’ at which pedophiles would receive honorary police commissions” and a recruitment ad that ‘strongly encourag[ed] minorities to not apply,’” according to the opinion.
“Novak’s page delighted, disgusted, and confused,” Judge Thapar wrote. “Not everyone understood it. But when it comes to parody, the law requires a reasonable reader standard, not a ‘most gullible person on Facebook’ standard,” he wrote.
“The First Amendment does not depend on whether everyone is in on the joke. Neither is it bothered by public disapproval, whether tepid or red-hot,” Thapar added.
When the Parma, Ohio Police Department found out about the Facebook page, they requested that Facebook take down the account. Novak took down the page himself but was arrested for disrupting police department functions. The case then went to trial and Novak was acquitted.
Novak can now go forward with a lawsuit against the City of Parma.
Judge weighs in on free speech and parody
The First Amendment’s free speech protection does not hinge on whether a few people were confused, Thapar wrote.
“Speech that ‘could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts’ is a parody, even if ‘patently offensive’…Indeed, the genius of parody is that it comes close enough to reality to spark a moment of doubt in the reader’s mind before she realizes the joke,” Thapar wrote.
Thapar also cited Benjamin Franklin’s 1784 satirical essay in the Journal de Paris that “came so close to the truth that it anticipated reality before it happened.”
Franklin, writing about the benefit of daylight, joked that the French should “consider waking up earlier to save money on candles.” This satire in fact anticipated Daylight Saving Time, Thapar wrote.
“Though Novak’s Facebook page mocking the Parma Police Department has since left the cyber world, several of his legal claims will live on,” the opinion said.