On February 20, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal in the case of a man who was arrested for created a fake Facebook page mocking the Parma Police Department.
Anthony Novak appealed to the high court after unsuccessfully suing the police department for arresting him in 2016 for creating the satirical page. The page closely resembled the look of Parma P.D.’s official Facebook page and contained posts poking fun at the department.
Novak was later acquitted of all charges and sued the city for violating his First Amendment rights to free speech. Both lower district and appeals courts sided with Parma, on the basis that qualified immunity protected the city from civil liability.
Novak was disappointed that the Supreme Court would not hear his appeal.
“The government shouldn’t be able to arrest you for making a joke at its expense,” Novak said in a statement from his attorneys. “I’m disappointed the Supreme Court won’t consider my case both because I won’t be able to hold the officers accountable for their violation of my rights, but also because I worry about what will happen to others who poke fun at the powerful.”
An attorney for Parma, Richard Rezie, said the Supreme Court made the right call, arguing that Novak underplayed the effects of his behavior.
“The city and its police have consistently maintained that Mr. Novak’s behavior was not for satirical purposes,” Rezie said. “Several sites make fun of the police, and the city and Parma police have always worked with protestors to protect and ensure their First Amendment rights.”
Patrick Jaicomo, Novak’s attorney, said the ruling allows qualified immunity — which protects government officials from civil liability while performing their duties — to override First Amendment rights in the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an area that includes Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.
“Anthony’s Facebook page was the type of government parody that the founders intended to protect through the First Amendment, which is why The Onion and The Babylon Bee supported our appeal,” Jaicomo stated. “That everyday people can see the inside of a jail cell for their jokes on Facebook is yet another reason why qualified immunity must come to an end.”
Fellow attorney Subodh Chandra also criticized the rulings and the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Now, in our region of the country at least, we must all think twice before we mock government officials because they can use the excuse that a handful of people are complaining to seize our possessions, jail us and prosecute us,” Chandra said. “Officials can then deploy qualified immunity as a defense to any accountability, and federal courts won’t even send a message to officials to not abuse rights in the future.”
On the fake page, one post strongly encouraged minorities not to apply to the department, while another said that police officials were offering abortions.
The page, active for just under a day, received less than 100 followers and led to 10 9-1-1 calls reporting the page to the department.
Parma police arrested Novak a few days later, seizing his laptop and cellphone in the process. Novak spent four days in jail and was eventually acquitted of fourth-degree felony charges of disrupting public services at trial.
The Supreme Court’s decision is another example in recent years of the court upholding the doctrine of qualified immunity or refusing to challenge the principle.