Can You Get Arrested for Telling a Joke?

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Hi, I’m Danny Karon, your Lovable Lawyer here with your quick shot of legal wellness that’s certain to cure all your legal ills. Well, not really, right? I mean any reasonable listener would know that my promise is a parody, a statement made with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. But, is parodying through words like mine legal? I mean we have a First Amendment right to free speech, don’t we? Not so fast. 

Back in 2016, Anthony Novak, a Northeast Ohio man was arrested for creating a parody City of Parma Police Department Facebook page. His posts included such off the wall things as job postings that discouraged applications by minorities and establishing “Family Day,” where families had to stay inside and come together in an effort to reduce future crime by encouraging children’s communication with their parents. Anyone seen outside their home from noon to nine would be arrested. Well, the Parma police ended up arresting him. His case went to trial where he was acquitted of fourth degree felony charges for disrupting a public service. 

Afterward, he sued the Parma Police Department for violating his First Amendment right to free speech. When his case made its way to the Court of Appeals, the court believed it was reasonable to think that he might have been impersonating an officer which, unlike parody, is not free speech. Thus, the court said probable cause existed for his arrest, which was not retaliatory. Novak petitioned the Supreme Court to take his case. In a first ever filing, the satirical publication, The Onion, which is all about parody, filed a memorandum with the Supreme Court encouraging it to take the case. Though the memorandum is serious in its message about preserving our right to parody, it’s also hilarious. For instance, it describes The Onion as the world’s leading news organization rising from a newspaper back in 1756 to 4.3 trillion in readership daily, and it’s the single most powerful and influential organization in human history. Parody. 

If the Supreme Court takes Novak’s case, it could decide which prevails – law enforcement’s qualified immunity from being sued or freedom of speech. The Onion is concerned because if the court rules in favor of qualified immunity, it might destroy its business model by questioning the validity of the First Amendment. More broadly, such a ruling could make a lot of people too scared even to speak up and there’s nothing funny about that.

If you’d like to learn more about legal wellness, please subscribe to my YouTube channel or visit me at Until next time, I’m Danny Karon, your Lovable Lawyer.

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