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Supreme Court Lets Police Sidestep Accountability for Retaliating Against Activist Over Right to Criticize the Government Through Satire

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Published on: February 24, 2023

WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of an Ohio man who was arrested, jailed, had his apartment searched, and had his phone and laptop seized by police in retaliation for mocking the police department through a parody Facebook page.

In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case of Novak v. City of ParmaRutherford Institute attorneys argued that government officials should not be permitted to retaliate against citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights, especially the right to criticize the government through satire, nor should they be granted qualified immunity as a means of shielding them from accountability.

“This could have been one of the most important cases in recent years to attempt to level the playing field when it comes to the citizenry’s First Amendment right to criticize the government, police misconduct and the misguided doctrine of qualified immunity,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “By refusing to hear this case, the Supreme Court’s message is coming through loud and clear: qualified immunity is how the police state stays in power, by ensuring that government officials are not held accountable.”

The case arose in March 2016 after Anthony Novak anonymously created a parody Facebook page to mock the Parma Police Department and published six posts on the parody page ridiculing the police as incompetent, racist, cruel, and lenient on serious crime. The satirical posts included: an announcement about a white male who got away after committing an armed robbery of a Subway sandwich shop, but only requesting information to “bring to justice” an “African American woman” who was merely loitering in front of the shop; an announcement that new police officers would be eligible based merely on “a 15 question multiple choice definition test followed by a hearing test” but “strongly encouraging minorities to not apply;” and an announcement of an “official stay inside and catch up with family day” to “reduce future crimes” during which anyone outside would be arrested. Novak deleted the page after only twelve hours, but not before several Facebook users had reported it to police as fake. Police claimed that the handful of non-emergency calls about the fake page disrupted public services.

Although Novak defended his parody site as his attempt “to exercise his fundamental American right of mocking our government officials,” he was charged with using a computer to disrupt police functions. Novak was subsequently arrested, jailed for four days before he made bond, and had his apartment searched and phone and laptop seized by Ohio police allegedly in retaliation for the parody Facebook page. At trial, Novak was found not guilty of the criminal charge. After the criminal charge against him was dismissed, Novak sued the police for retaliating against him and restraining his speech in violation of the First Amendment, and for malicious prosecution and unlawful search, seizure, and arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently granted police qualified immunity for arresting Novak over his satirical posts which should be protected speech.

Thomas J. Eastmond of Holland & Knight LLP advanced the arguments in The Rutherford Institute’s brief in Novak v. City of Parma.  The Onion and the Babylon Bee also filed amicus briefs in the case.

Case History

November 3, 2022 • Rutherford Institute Asks Supreme Court to Limit Use of Qualified Immunity by Police, Safeguard Right to Criticize the Government Through Satire

Novak v. City of Parma

Amicus brief: The Rutherford Institute

Amicus brief: The Onion

Amicus brief: Babylon Bee

Article posted with permission from John Whitehead

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