I will admit, I started reading The Onion’s amicus brief out of amusement, because I generally like the Onion. I saw the headline about it, saw that a court is hearing a case regarding freedom of speech with regard to satire and decided that if The Onion was getting involved, I was curious as to why.
On October 3, The Onion filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court. They filed it in support of Anthony Novak, a man suing the police department of Parma, Ohio for violating his civil rights when they arrested him for making a parody Facebook page of the police department. The Onion decided to file the brief when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of the police department on the basis of qualified immunity, with the goal of convincing the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Novak.
The amicus brief is a work of art. It is everything that good comedic writing should be — amusing, easily understood and, when needed, deeply, deeply terrifying. It is possible that nothing will come from this case — the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether they will hear it, and there’s no way to know what their ruling would be. The Supreme Court is hearing cases with incredible importance in this upcoming term, covering issues ranging from affirmative action to the EPA to electoral law, a variety of topics in a series of cases that could have profound implications in the future. But here I am, writing about satire and a case which in all probability will have few lasting effects.
I consider myself a supporter of satire — my articles in the Carletonian are, more often than not, Bald Spots commenting on real themes I have noticed, usually on campus. To take last week as an example, I wrote an article providing advice to students who might be on more club email lists than they intended to be. My article was satire and should be read as such. But each story was absolutely true, and I wrote it as a real discussion of the fact that many Carleton students do, in fact, join what is arguably too many club email lists. I nearly wrote a Viewpoint about it, but I decided I didn’t have enough of an argument, and I mostly wanted to highlight a trend I noticed. I decided that humor would be a more effective vehicle for that idea than a serious article would be. As I said, I like satire.
But to be clear, The Onion’s amicus brief isn’t satire. It’s written comedically — that’s the only aspect of the case that any major news source seems to care about — but the points The Onion makes are serious and should be taken as such.
If you read a print Carletonian, you’ll notice the disclaimer on the upper right- hand corner of page eight. “The Bald Spot is satire!” it proclaims, a warning to all Bald Spot readers to take whatever they may read with a grain, or perhaps a handful, of salt. I have advocated against this disclaimer — unsuccessfully, as one can easily tell by looking at page eight — but somewhat seriously. Perhaps the title of a Bald Spot is sometimes ambiguous as to its sincerity (my most recent Bald Spot was titled “On reading the emails of clubs you’ll probably never go to: advice, stories and why you shouldn’t follow my example” and it’s not an inaccurate title), but a reasonable person should be able to read the article and tell that it’s satire. The point of satire is that it could be taken seriously, that when you read it there’s a moment of hesitation, when you question: wait, is this true? Satirical writing shouldn’t need a disclaimer; it should speak for itself. How true that is for the Carletonian is irrelevant, and honestly, I don’t have strong feelings about it.
What I do have strong feelings about, however, is that it is 100% the Carletonian’s choice to include that disclaimer. It makes little difference to me that it’s there, but if Admin were to say it has to be, I would care. (A quick note: this is purely hypothetical — the Carletonian has no reason to believe the college’s administration would object to the removal of the disclaimer). This is because the Carletonian is an independent newspaper: we are not paid by the school (we get to rant to you for free here in Viewpoint), and we choose what goes into our paper. It is absolutely within our rights to criticize the college administration in whatever form we so choose, whether by reporting the facts in News (always with the aim of unbiased information), sharing our opinions in Viewpoint (I’m not going to claim Viewpoint is unbiased, but if anyone in the campus offices we criticize wants to write an article, they’re always welcome to reach out to me or a viewpoint editor) or satirizing real situations in the Bald Spot.
This type of balance, the fact that newspapers can be critical of the institutions which govern the people who write and produce them, is essential to news. It allows people to trust newspapers, which they know will attempt to provide them with the truest story possible, and it allows people to trust institutions, because they know that newspapers will keep checking on what institutions are doing.
The lack of a disclaimer is central to the case in question, with the charge Novak was arrested under being “an Ohio law that criminalizes using a computer to ‘disrupt’ ‘police operations.’” Except, satire isn’t a disruption. The court ruled that the police officers have qualified immunity and thus aren’t liable “for arresting an individual based solely on speech parodying the government.” And, speech parodying the government is protected speech. We have a right to criticize the government in almost any form. Satire is a legitimate and effective form of criticism, and the police have no right to arrest people for using it. There was nothing on the Facebook page in question indicating that the page was satire, but there was no need for a warning. Effective satire is entirely dependent on balancing real information with comedy, and it relies on its reader to know the difference. The power of satire comes from the question of whether it is real, and police cannot be allowed to arrest people for publishing effective satire.
Satirical journalism is journalism. It is more readable than most standard journalism, and it generally makes it point more efficiently. While it does tend to lack specific detail as to what exactly is going on in the world (or perhaps it avoids getting mired in details?), in significantly fewer words than the average news story it manages to convey the same idea.
“Biden Releases Marijuana Offenders from Prison to Make Room for Trump Administration,” read the title of a recent article by Andy Borowitz in the Borowitz Report, his eponymous satirical column in the New Yorker. The main attraction of this article is the title, although the article itself does add some details. But that title says all it needs to: Biden recently pardoned people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law, and Trump has done a wide variety of legally questionable things. The title successfully informs the reader of all of that, despite, or perhaps because of, it’s comedic style. The rest of the article serves to expand on those points and comment on Rudy Guiliani, admittedly mostly making fun of him.
“Parody relies on most readers being reasonable,” explained Mike Gillis in an editorial published in The Atlantic on October 12 about the dangers of the court case. Gillis is a head writer at The Onion and the author of the amicus brief. This idea is central to the amicus brief, with each section referring back to it. The argument of the amicus brief is divided into four main sections, each of which elaborates on the importance of unlabeled satire:
I. Parody Functions By Tricking People Into Thinking That It Is Real
II. Because Parody Mimics “The Real Thing,” It Has The Unique Capacity To Critique The Real Thing
III. A Reasonable Reader Does Not Need A Disclaimer To Know That Parody Is Parody
IV. It Should Be Obvious That Parodists Cannot Be Prosecuted For Telling A Joke With A Straight Face.
“Some forms of comedy don’t work unless the comedian is able to tell the joke with a straight face,” reads part of the introduction of the amicus brief. “Put simply, for parody to work, it has to plausibly mimic the original.” The amicus brief goes into more detail about why this is essential to satire, and I would suggest that anyone should read it. It is a better argument than I could make, and written with incredible comedic skill. So I will return to addressing the larger point here, which I see as the importance of satire as a form of free speech, with the caveat that I have not, in this Viewpoint, addressed the way that satire works, and that if you’re interested, you should absolutely read the 18 pages written by The Onion on the subject.
From John Oliver’s discussion of local news to The Borowitz Report’s coverage of national politics to the Onion’s coverage of major political figures, comedy, and more specifically, satire, has become a key pillar of American journalism. If the Supreme Court restricts their speech, or tacitly agrees with the ruling in favor of the police department, these news sources will have no choice but to either limit their own speech in fear of courts or take the risk of allowing police overreach and more potential arrests such as the one this case stems from. Informed voters are essential to democracy, and by limiting the type of news people are allowed to publish, the Supreme Court would be limiting what information people have access to. The current ruling is inconsistent with free speech, with a free press and with journalism as a means of communication. The Supreme Court has a responsibility to hear the case, and to defend satirical journalism as free speech.
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