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first amendment

Democracy

The Onion filed a Supreme Court brief. It's both hilariously serious and seriously hilarious.

Who else could call the judiciary 'total Latin dorks' while making a legitimate point?

The Onion's Supreme Court brief uses parody to defend parody.

Political satire and parody have been around for at least 2,400 years, as ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes satirized the way Athenian leaders conducted the Peloponnesian War and parodied the dramatic styles of his contemporaries, Aeschylus and Euripides.

Satire and parody are used to poke fun and highlight issues, using mimicry and sarcasm to create comedic biting commentary. No modern outlet has been more prolific on this front than The Onion, and the popular satirical news site is defending parody as a vital free speech issue in a legal filing with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The filing is, as one might expect from The Onion, as brilliantly hilarious as it is serious, using the same satirical style it's defending in the crafting of the brief itself.


The Onion filed its amicus brief in support of Anthony Novak, a man who was arrested for and prosecuted for parodying the Parma, Ohio, police department on Facebook. Citing a law against disrupting police operations, the police searched Novak's apartment, seized his electronics and put him in jail, where he spent four days before making bail. After a jury acquitted him of all criminal charges, he subsequently filed a civil lawsuit against the police for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights. However, a federal appeals court threw out the lawsuit, ruling that the officers had "qualified immunity," which protects government officials from being sued for unconstitutional infringements.

The Onion is petitioning for a writ of certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to toss out Novak's civil rights suit. As NPR points out, one primary question in this case is whether people reasonably believed Novak's Facebook page, which used the department's real name and photo but had a satirical slogan ("We no crime."), to be the department's real page.

The Onion argues that such ambiguity and potential confusion is exactly the point of parody. But the way the argument is made—using satire and parody to defend satire and parody—is making headlines.

The 23-page amicus brief can be read in full here, but let's look at some of the highlights:

First, the description of The Onion itself:

"The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national, international, and local news events. Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1756, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.

"In addition to maintaining a towering standard of excellence to which the rest of the industry aspires, The Onion supports more than 350,000 full- and parttime journalism jobs in its numerous news bureaus and manual labor camps stationed around the world, and members of its editorial board have served with distinction in an advisory capacity for such nations as China, Syria, Somalia, and the former Soviet Union. On top of its journalistic pursuits, The Onion also 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's clear to a reasonable mind that they're not being serious here. And yet, this description is being filed in a real Supreme Court filing, setting the stage for the entire argument of how parody works.

"Put simply, for parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original," the brief states. "The Sixth Circuit’s decision in this case would condition the First Amendment’s protection for parody upon a requirement that parodists explicitly say, up-front, that their work is nothing more than an elaborate fiction. But that would strip parody of the very thing that makes it function. 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 writer of the brief clearly wasn't going to let the opportunity to demonstrate the comedic nature of satire to pass simply because this was an actual legal document being filed before the highest court in the land, nor was he going to spare the judiciary from being the object of said comedy.

It took some gumption to write this paragraph, but oh gracious is it perfection. While arguing that parody functions by tricking people into thinking it's real, the brief states:

"Tu stultus es. You are dumb. These three Latin words have been The Onion’s motto and guiding light since it was founded in 1988 as America’s Finest News Source, leading its writers toward the paper’s singular purpose of pointing out that its readers are deeply gullible people. The Onion’s motto is central to this brief for two important reasons. First, it’s Latin. And 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. So The Onion knew that, unless it pointed to a suitably Latin rallying cry, its brief would be operating far outside the Court’s vernacular."

Just jaw-droppingly irreverent, and yet immediately following is a totally cogent and reasoned argument about the nature of parody, complete with citations and footnotes:

"The second reason—perhaps mildly more important—is that the phrase 'you are dumb' captures the very heart of parody: tricking readers into believing that they’re seeing a serious rendering of some specific form—a pop song lyric, a newspaper article, a police beat—and then allowing them to laugh at their own gullibility when they realize that they’ve fallen victim to one of the oldest tricks in the history of rhetoric. See San Francisco Bay Guardian, Inc. v. Super. Ct., 21 Cal. Rptr. 2d 464, 466 (Ct. App. 1993) ('[T]he very nature of parody . . . is to catch the reader off guard at first glance, after which the ‘victim’ recognizes that the joke is on him to the extent that it caught him unaware.').

"It really is an old trick. The word 'parody' stretches back to the Hellenic world. It originates in the prefix para, meaning an alteration, and the suffix ode, referring to the poetry form known as an ode.3 One of its earliest practitioners was the first-century B.C. poet Horace, whose Satires would replicate the exact form known as an ode—mimicking its meter, its subject matter, even its self-serious tone—but tweaking it ever so slightly so that the form was able to mock its own idiocies."

The brief is a brilliant defense of parody wrapped up in perfect parodic packaging, which is even pointed out in the arguments to drive home the point, as on page 15:

"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.

"See what happened? This brief itself went from a discussion of parody’s function—and the quite serious historical and legal arguments in favor of strong protections for parodic speech—to a curveball mocking the way legalese can be both impenetrably boring and belie the hollowness of a legal position. That’s the setup and punchline idea again. It 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!' Taking the latter route would have spoiled the joke and come off as more than a bit stodgy. But more importantly, it would have disarmed the power that comes with a form devouring itself. For millennia, this has been the rhythm of parody: The author convinces the readers that they’re reading the real thing, then pulls the rug out from under them with the joke. The heart of this form lies in that give and take between the serious setup and the ridiculous punchline."

The Onion has outdone itself many times, but this amicus brief may be its best work yet right up to the end.

"The Onion intends to continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power…," the argument section concludes. "And it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15- minute increments in an exercise yard."

Definitely give the full brief a read. You'll certainly never read another Supreme Court filing like it.

On July 26, 2017, President Trump tweeted this:

The tweet linked to a video on Instagram taken at the president's recent rally in Youngstown, Ohio, where he relayed the same message to supporters.

Except ... the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American the right to practice whatever religion they choose to practice and worship whichever God they choose — and that includes no religion or no God at all.


The separation of church and state, our Founding Fathers decided, is as American as apple pie.

The irony of Trump's tweet wasn't lost on Hend Amry, who also spotted a loophole in his statement.

Trump never specified which God. So Amry, a popular Muslim Arab American voice on Twitter, tweeted in response to the president:

The sentiment behind the phrase "Allahu Akbar" — roughly translated to "Allah [or God] is the greatest" in English — seemed to be a hit with other users, as the tweet quickly amassed over 20,000 Likes.

"THIS TWEET KNOWS NO IMPERFECTIONS," one user chimed in.

"ALLAHU AKBAR! I'm a Unitarian Universalist and atheist," another wrote, "but solidarity is important in these troubled times."

Amry's response, while tongue-in-cheek, perfectly nailed a vital contradiction in Trump's policy-making and worldview.

On one hand, Trump is a boisterous proponent of religion — so long as it's a specific kind of religion.

If you're Muslim, you or a family member may fall victim to Trump's bigoted, ill-informed immigration policies. If you're Jewish, you may not have too many allies in his White House — an administration that's "tacitly [embraced] anti-Semitism," according to some advocates.

Upon taking office, Trump swore to uphold the Constitution — and that includes respecting and protecting the First Amendment. Judging by his latest tweet, he's done a very poor job in doing so. SAD!

Most Shared

A reporter finally called out Trump's fake news claims in the White House today.

Brian Karem took a bold stand in the name of freedom of the press.

Things got heated during today's White House press briefing over a familiar topic: fake news.

After Breitbart's Charlie Spiering asked a question about CNN's decision to retract and apologize for a controversial story about connections between one of President Donald Trump's allies and Russia, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tore into media outlets for running what she called "fake news directed at this president."

The goal was clear: to sow distrust in reporting that made the administration look bad. It's been done time and time again.


White House reporter Brian Karem was tired of the unending assault and decided to speak up.

"Any one of us are replaceable, and any one of us, if we don’t get it right, the audience has the opportunity to turn the channel or not read us," said Karem, emphasizing journalists are just trying to do their jobs. They want to be able to ask questions, get answers, and report the truth.

By all accounts, CNN did the right thing about the story in question. They made a mistake and did what they could to fix it.

The story, which ran on CNN's website, alleged that Congress was investigating connections between Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment fund. Shortly after the article was published, the outlet pulled it down, issuing a statement saying the story didn't live up to their editorial standards. Three journalists involved with the story resigned, and Scaramucci accepted CNN's apology. This is how things are supposed to work when a mistake is made.

Which is why Karem — who isn't involved with CNN, but was simply tired of reputable news outlets being called "fake news" — decided to speak up. And it's a good thing he did.

Making a mistake, owning up to it, and facing the consequences isn't "fake news." It's time Trump learns this lesson.

This morning, the president sent out a series of tweets calling CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post "fake news."

Fact check: They're not.

Interestingly enough, just a few hours later, Pulitzer-winning Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold‏ wrote that Trump had some very literal "fake news" hanging up at a number of his own properties: a phony Time magazine cover. The irony here shouldn't be lost on anyone.

It might seem comical our president is so out of touch with reality that he and his administration declare anything he doesn't like to be "fake news," but it's not. It's dangerous.

"If the media can’t be trusted to report the news, that’s a dangerous place for America," said Huckabee Sanders during the briefing.

She's right. That's why more people like Karem must push back against an administration dead set on suppressing free speech. While he wasn't the one being called "fake news" today, there's no telling what tomorrow will bring.

Watch the entire, powerful exchange below:

Just before 7 this morning, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted a call to jail or denaturalize anyone who burns the American flag.

As is the case with most things Trump, theories about, well ... why he tweeted this have run the gamut — from an attempt to distract from a report on son-in-law Jared Kushner's conflicts of interest to a devious plan to incite people to actually do it and use the backlash to consolidate his support to a typically impulsive response to something he saw on Fox News.

Regardless, it's a pretty stunning — and frightening — proposal. For a man who wants to make America great again, the tweet demonstrates a complete disregard for what makes America great in the first place: the First Amendment.


That amendment guarantees that each and every one of us can do any number of highly inadvisable, morally suspect, un-American things — short of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater — and the U.S. government can't do a damn thing about it. Sure, your fellow citizens can slide you a massive side-eye, argue with you, or condemn you, but you won't be arrested or have your passport taken away.

Indeed, thanks to the genius of the framers and the First Amendment, in America, you can...

1. Belt Toto's "Africa" at the top of your lungs while everyone else sings the pregame national anthem at Fenway Park.

Photo via iStock.

No matter how deeply punchable this would make you, you can't be arrested for singing the first verse-into-chorus of this classic '80s jam.

2. Photoshop a giant thumbs-down into a picture of Arches National Park.

Thumb photo via iStock. Background photo by Harvey Meston/Getty Images.

It's one of the most stunning vistas in the entire world. And thanks to James Madison, you are fully free to heckle it at your leisure.

3. Enjoy the song stylings of the North Korean girl group Moranbong.

Photo by Ed Jones/Getty Images.

The propaganda K-pop knockoff quintet shouldn't be your favorite band, but if they are, you are legally permitted to do you in that regard!

4. Tweet "Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or a year in jail!"

As ill-advised and constitutionally suspect as this is, it's within your rights to do so, even if you're soon to be the most powerful person in the country.

5. Dump a full bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken down a storm drain.

Photo via iStock.

This is an obviously terrible idea, both as a practical and symbolic gesture. But you can still do it. Because America.

6. Call Vladimir Putin on his personal cell to tell him he's a swell guy.

Photo by Alexey Druzhinin/Getty Images.

As long as you're not giving away state secrets, if you've got his number, you're good to chat with America's biggest frenemy!

7. Reply "Nah, I'm good" when offered a slice of apple pie.  

Photo via iStock.

Thanks, though!

8. Sneak up behind a bald eagle and yell "I know at least three blue jays that could kick your ass!"

Doesn't matter how skeptical the eagle is. Photo by Lewis Hulbert/Wikimedia Commons.

He's probably too much of a wimp to nip your eyes out anyway.

9. Protest soldiers' funerals while yelling homophobic slurs at their grieving relatives.

Photo by Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images.

This is perhaps the most morally odious thing you can possibly do. And yet, you're allowed to do it in America, which, believe it or not, is kind of fantastic.

10. Say "Soccer is better than football."

Photo by Gabriele Maltini/Getty Images.

Hell, you can even say "Soccer is football." No one can throw you out of here for that.

11. Refuse to accept American Express for purchases at your hardware store, deli, or pharmacy.

Photo by Clemson/Flickr.

Just because they have "American" in their name doesn't mean you have to roll over for their 3% surcharge.

12. Decide, for some reason, to be a Nazi.

Nazis protest the opening of a Holocaust museum in Illinois because that's pretty much their beat. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

To be clear, you absolutely, 100% shouldn't be a Nazi. And if you are a Nazi, if you assault or murder any minorities, you're going to get nabbed by the feds and you will deserve it (hate speech and hate crimes are wildly different things, according to the law). But whether you're a full-on Nazi marching down Main Street to terrify Holocaust survivors in a Chicago bedroom community or a kind-of secret Nazi that dresses up and stuffs chicken parm sliders down your throat at a swanky conference in Washington, D.C., you're legally allowed to exist and shout out the terrible things you believe as the rest of us ignore you.

In America, you're allowed to be a Nazi.

13. Book a paid appearance on Russian state television.

Incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Not only can you cash in on that sweet geopolitical rivalry, you can still be a top national security official in the president's cabinet! Sweet!

14. Say "I'm moving to Canada" every time your preferred political party loses an election.

No, you're not going to, but go nuts saying it!

15. Post anti-immigration screeds on Facebook even though all four of your grandparents were immigrants.

It's hypocritical as all hell — and it is your right as a hypocritical American to go there. Thanks, freedom of speech!

16. Root for Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV."

GIF from "Rocky IV"/United Artists.

Snap!

17. Root for Team Iceland in "D2: The Mighty Ducks."

GIF from "D2: The Mighty Ducks"/Walt Disney Pictures.

Boom!

18. Root for the aliens in "Independence Day."

GIF from "Independence Day"/20th Century Fox.

Ka-blam!

19. Fly the Confederate flag.

Photo by Mark Hazlett/Getty Images.

It's the banner of actual traitors who killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in the name of enslaving millions of other Americans, and you can celebrate it as long and hard as you want here.

People will probably yell at you, as is their right, and that's also great. Super American 5000 all-around!

20. Tell anyone who will listen that paying taxes is B.S.

A Brooklyn woman meets with a tax preparer. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

Sure, it's cool to have roads, bridges, schools, fire departments, a military, and health care, but you're still allowed to hate on the IRS with total impunity. You know, as long as you do pay your taxes.

21. Back your truck up over a copy of the "Hamilton" original cast recording.

"Hamilton" is, without question, the patriotic feel-good album of the year, revitalizing interest in America's founding while boasting such instant classics as "My Shot," "Satisfied," and "The Room Where it Happens." And you are perfectly covered if you choose to smash it to bits under your four-wheel drive.

22. Burn the American flag.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Torching the Stars and Stripes is not particularly safe, nor is it generally an effective means of protest. Honestly, you should definitely think twice before burning the flag (unless you're a Boy Scout).

Still, you are fully, unequivocally, 100% within your rights as a citizen to light that baby up if you so choose. Which leads to...

23. You can totally call out a tweet from the president-elect of the United States for being ridiculously un-American.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Just because a person is powerful doesn't mean they're above criticism.

Just because a president-elect floats an idea doesn't mean we have to accept or agree with it — liberal, conservative, or otherwise.

Just because the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government issues a statement doesn't mean it reflects the values we hold in common.

The president can say whatever he wants. Just like every other citizen.

In return, Americans can (and should!) remind him when things he says are wrong, dangerous, and — frankly — un-American.

This is America, after all.