A federal appeals court recently ruled that a man who was arrested and later acquitted for creating a fake Parma Police Department Facebook page did not have his civil rights violated.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an initial ruling against Anthony Novak after he sued Parma police officials for retaliating against him for creating a parody Facebook account that mocked the Parma Police Department.
Ultimately, the court determined that Novak could not prove that police acted wrongfully and maliciously in arresting and charging him for the fourth-degree felony of disrupting public services, or that they violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
“Little did Anthony Novak know when he launched ‘The City of Parma Police Department’ page that he’d wind up a defendant in court,” Circuit Court Judge Amul Thapar wrote in an opinion. “So too for the officers who arrested him. At the end of the day, neither got all they wanted — Novak won’t be punished for his alleged crime, and the defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Novak’s civil claims.”
The summary judgment here refers to the judge’s ruling in favor of the city.
Novak’s attorney, Subodh Chandra, said the case demonstrated how qualified immunity allows police to violate people’s rights. Chandra said he is considering further appeals.
“Mr. Novak — who was arrested, jailed and prosecuted simply for mocking the government — is deeply disappointed by the court’s decision, which sets dangerous precedent undermining free speech, bends over backward to resolve conflicting facts in favor of exonerating the officers, grants an impermissible ‘heckler’s veto’ to those irritated by speech and is irreconcilable with both the appeals court’s own prior decision and the First Amendment,” Chandra said.
Novak’s mockery of the police department consisted of creating a fake Facebook page with the same logo and masthead, but instead of the slogan “We know crime,” Novak changed it to “We no crime.” He also posted fake job postings that strongly discouraged minorities from applying.
Other posts said the department offered abortions and prohibited residents from feeding homeless people.
Although the page was active for less than a day and had less than 100 followers, Novak was later arrested and spent four days in jail. His laptop and cell phone were also seized by police.
A month after his release, Novak filed the first of two lawsuits that eventually made its way to a 6th Circuit Federal Appeals Court.
In the judge’s summary opinion, Parma officers Kevin Riley and Thomas Connor had sufficient probable cause to arrest Novak and prosecute him. It also noted the officers presented the case to a prosecutor and a judge, both of whom authorized the charges.
The ruling stated that the city and officers didn’t prevent Novak’s speech because he still had access to Facebook through a friend or a public library.
However, the court criticized the city and police for wasting time and resources in the case.
“Indeed, it is cases like these when government officials have a particular obligation to act reasonably,” the judges wrote. “Was Novak’s Facebook page worth a criminal prosecution, two appeals, and countless hours of Novak’s and the government’s time?” they questioned.
Parma is located just south of Cleveland, Ohio.