On March 2, 2016, Anthony Novak published a parody of the Parma Police Department’s Facebook page. His posts contained a range of absurd content, including:
• Announcing that “[w]e will be giving out free abortions to teens using an experimental teqhnique [sic] discovered by the Parma Police Department,” to be performed in a van in a Giant Eagle parking lot;
• Holding a “Pedophile Reform event” where anyone who passes “puzzles and quizzes” will be “removed frome [sic] the sex offender registry and accepted as an honorarium [sic] police officer of the Parma Police Department”;
• Enacting a “new temporary law” that will forbid residents from giving money to any homeless person “in an attempt to have the homeless population eventually leave our city due to starvation.”
The page was online for less than 12 hours. Nine people called the Parma non-emergency police phone number to tell the city about the page. The calls totaled less than ten minutes, and at most, one of the callers believed the page belonged to Parma. The calls did not cause dispatch to miss a single emergency call.
Parma police nonetheless investigated the page, arrested Mr. Novak, and seized his computer. He was charged with the felony of “knowingly us[ing] … a computer so as to disrupt, interrupt, or impair the functions of … police operations.” He was tried and acquitted, and subsequently filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio against the police department for retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment rights.
The district court entered judgment for the defendant Parma police, finding that “even if the content of Novak’s Facebook page was protected, Novak’s conduct in confusing the public and disrupting police operations was not.” That decision is on appeal to the Sixth Circuit.
Mr. Novak’s page was a parody. Parody is inherently provocative and often political, but is clearly protected speech. Any state law that is applied to criminalize such speech violates the First Amendment; and the state cannot rely on protected speech to furnish probable cause for a crime that consists entirely of protected speech.
We filed our amicus brief in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 5, 2021.