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SCOTUS Lets Ohio Detainee’s Suit Die Over Incarceration for Parodied Police Facebook Page

When Anthony Novak created a Facebook page that parodied the police department in Parma, Ohio, he may have been attempting satirical humor. But he wasn’t laughing when police officers searched his apartment, seized his phone and laptop, then arrested and jailed him for four days. Why? They claimed he violated state law banning “disruptions” to their operations.

As laid out at his trial on the charge, Novak’s six postings to the fake page purported to be from fictitious police officials, included a help-wanted ad discouraging minorities from applying and a “Pedophile Reform” event. But a jury acquitted him of violating the law by knowingly disrupting police operations.

Novak then sued in federal court for the Northern District of Ohio, claiming his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated and adding that he was subjected to search and seizure that was illegal under the Fourth Amendment. The police officers who arrested him, Kevin Riley and Thomas Connor, argued they had probable cause for the arrest based on the impact of the fake Facebook page on police operations, since a dozen or so people had called to inquire about the parody page.

On February 24, 2021, the district court dismissed Novak’s suit, agreeing that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity (QI) because it was not clearly established that citizens could not be arrested for parodying the police when the officers have – or claim to have – probable cause. See: Novak v. City of Parma, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34396 (N.D. Ohio).

On April 29, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed that decision. The Court noted that the City of Parma’s legal director, Timothy Dobeck, had told the officers there was probable cause to arrest Novak, and two judges had issued the arrest and search warrants. Finding “there’s no recognized right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause,” the Court held that in order to prevail, Novak had to show probable cause was lacking. He failed to do so, however, as the state law he was charged with violating “imposes no lower bound on how much disruption” of police operations is required. Therefore, the Court concluded, the officers “could reasonably believe” that calls from concerned citizens created a disruption.

Further, Novak had modeled his satirical Facebook page after the police department’s real page, providing verisimilitude that it belonged to the cops – which was arguably not constitutionally protected activity. “After all,” the Court said, “impersonating the police is not protected speech.” Since it was not clearly established that Novak couldn’t be arrested for his parody Facebook page, the officers were entitled to QI.

The same analysis applied to his Fourth Amendment, malicious prosecution, prior restraint, municipal liability and state law claims. The Court wrote that “granting the officers [QI] does not mean their actions were justified or should be condoned.”

“Was Novak’s Facebook page worth a criminal prosecution, two appeals, and countless hours of Novak’s and the government’s time?” the Court asked, answering its own query: “We have our doubts.”

Yet despite those doubts the Sixth Circuit upheld dismissal of the suit. The Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) then declined to issue a writ of certiorari to review the case on February 21, 2023. See: Novak v. City of Parma, 33 F.4th 296 (6th Cir. 2022); and 143 S. Ct. 773 (2023).

Left unanswered by any court was how responding to calls from concerned citizens amounts to a “disruption” for police; isn’t it just part of their job? Instead the case will probably do what Defendants clearly wanted it to do – serve as a warning to anyone who wants to parody the police in a nation that is steadily becoming a police state. Novak was represented on appeal by the Chandra Law Firm, with amicus support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.  

Additional source: NBC News

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Related legal cases

Novak v. City of Parma

Novak v. City of Parma

Novak v. City of Parma