by Tyler Arnold
A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is allowing a First Amendment lawsuit to move forward that was filed by an Ohio man who was arrested for – and later acquitted of – making a parody Facebook account of the Parma Police Department.
The man, Anthony Novak, was charged with a felony for “unlawfully impairing the functions of police” by creating the parody account. Although he was later acquitted by a jury, he is suing the City of Parma, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated when he arrested for exercising free speech.
The Facebook page was titled “City of Parma Police Department” and had identical photos to the actual department’s page. However, all of his posts were satire. He posted a fake job application for the police department, which discouraged minorities from applying, and claimed to be hosting a “Pedophile Reform Event” in which “pedophiles” would be given honorary police commissions.
The three-judge panel said in its opinion that the police officers are entitled to some immunity from the charges, but not complete immunity. It also noted that the right to ridicule the government holds an important place in American history and tradition, on par with “apple pie” and “baseball.”
“Novak’s page delighted, disgusted, and confused,” the opinion read. “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. 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.”
The City of Parma maintains that many of Novak’s satirical allegations are not true.
“We are encouraged the court dismissed parts of the complaint,” Insurance Counsel Steve Strang of Gallagher Sharp law firm, which is representing the city, said via email.
“At this early stage in the case, the court was required to take all of Mr. Novak’s allegations as true, and discovery will show they are not,” Strang said. “We continue to believe our officers were justified in this arrest and are confident the court will ultimately dismiss the entire case.”
The Facebook page was accessible for only about a half a day before Novak took it down, according to the opinion. It had fewer than 100 likes, but some commenters found the posts amusing while others were angered and confused. Some viewers reported the site to the police department.
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Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and Ohio for The Center Square.