The Man Who Wrote the Onion’s Supreme Court Brief Takes Parody Very Seriously
The long-running First Amendment case of an Ohio man is suddenly getting a lot of attention, thanks to the satirical news site the Onion.
And that's not because it's been spoofed. It's because the publication has gotten involved directly, submitting a brief to the Supreme Court in defense of parody itself.
The 23-page amicus brief was filed on Monday in support of Anthony Novak, who is asking the Supreme Court to take up his civil rights lawsuit against the police officers who arrested and prosecuted him for creating a parody Facebook page of their department (more on that here).
"Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government? This was a surprise to America's Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team," the brief opens.
It goes on to defend the purpose and power of parody in society before explaining that successful satire comes from being realistic enough that it initially tricks readers into believing one thing, only to make them "laugh at their own gullibility when they realize that they've fallen victim to one of the oldest tricks in the history of rhetoric."
None of this would work if it were preceded by a disclaimer, the brief argues, noting that most courts have historically shared this view — except for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which, in this instance, sided with the police officers. The Onion's brief urges the Supreme Court to take up the case and rule in Novak's favor. It also wants "the rights of the people vindicated, and various historical wrongs remedied," by the way.
"The Onion cannot stand idly by in the face of a ruling that threatens to disembowel a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, that is particularly potent in the realm of political debate, and that, purely incidentally, forms the basis of The Onion's writers' paychecks," it reads.
The document quickly started making the rounds on social media and in straight news headlines, both for its unusual form of intervention — this is its first such legal filing — and trademark humorous approach to a serious topic.
In classic The Onion fashion, it is snarky — one subheading reads "It Should Be Obvious That Parodists Cannot Be Prosecuted For Telling A Joke With A Straight Face" — and self-referential — it says the story sounds like a headline right out of The Onion, "albeit one that's considerably less amusing because its subjects are real."
It also appeals directly to its audience, sprinkling in numerous Latin phrases (at one point, a whole paragraph full — see page 15) because it "knows that the federal judiciary is staffed entirely by total Latin dorks."
Some of the brief's more academically minded fans have said it should be taught in law schools, according to its author (who jokes this might be the first time his own father, a workers' compensation attorney, has used an exclamation mark to praise any of his writing). But it also seems to have struck a chord beyond the legal world.
Mike Gillis, head writer for The Onion and author of the brief, told NPR in a phone interview that he hopes the filing won't just help convince the Supreme Court to take on the case, but also show the public why parody matters so much.
"To just get this many people thinking about parody, and the fact that it adds a lot to their lives and that it's something worth defending, was very, very satisfying for me," he says.
How the brief came to be
Gillis, who has been at The Onion for about a decade, says the opportunity to get involved in this case arose over the summer when a mutual friend put Novak's legal team in touch with the publication.
He hadn't personally been closely following the case, but once The Onion's lawyers started looking into it and the editorial staff started discussing it they realized it was right up their alley.
As Gillis explains, amicus briefs are often drafted by the lawyers involved in the case, then given to the interested parties for additional details. In this case, it was the reverse: He wrote most of the arguments and jokes, then The Onion's lawyers bulked it up with legal precedent and historical context in what he called "an extremely collaborative process."
"I think because the draft itself was trying to make an argument for why parody is a really powerful form ... we thought it made more sense for us to kind of make the brief itself an example of why this thing is worth defending, and why parody is really interesting and grabs people's attention," he adds.
Immediately after the first call with Novak's legal team, Gillis sat down and wrote 1,500 words in one go — which he says was because of how excited he was about the "fun, entertaining, attention-grabbing" argument that he knew he could make.
His years of living and breathing satire and parody — from writing for The Onion to teaching classes at Second City and speaking with college humor publications — also didn't hurt, since he was already well-acquainted with the theory and importance of the form.
Gillis also consulted at times with The Onion's legal team and editor-in-chief since he found it a bit weird to be writing so publicly about the process and value of his site's own work, which he described as "kind of an example of why a disclaimer for parody is not a good idea."
One requirement of the brief is that Gillis must demonstrate that The Onion is an interested party (for starters, it was invoked in one of the early court rulings on the subject). He says there are two main reasons: Limitations on parody could hurt the company's business model, and could have a chilling effect on it and others.
There's a lot at stake, he says. There were several points Gillis wanted to make in the brief, but he knew above all else that he wanted it to be funny.
"It's like, everybody likes laughing," he says. "And sometimes I think these legal officials maybe get a little bit into their own heads about precedent and stuff, and lose track of just the function of why comedy is great and specifically why parody is great."
Members of The Onion's editorial team attend a team meeting in their Chicago office in 2020. Gillis says it employs about a dozen staff writers, plus contributors.
What Gillis wants you to know
There are certain misconceptions Gillis wanted to clear up for the Supreme Court — including why it's so important for parody to be realistic and why labeling it as such upfront wouldn't only be unnecessary, but unhelpful.
But he also sees the brief as an opportunity to defend the role of parody at large. So, NPR asked, why does it matter?
The short answer is that it's an "extremely powerful rhetorical form that can't really be mimicked by a serious, dry statement of criticism." The longer answer goes back thousands of years, to the etymological root of the word, and has to do with how even slightly tweaking a form can open readers' eyes to how "this thing that had this extremely elevated sense of itself is actually not infallible and can be criticized easily."
Gillis points to some examples of that in The Onion's archives: In 2012, the publication proclaimed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un "the sexiest man alive," and China's state-run agency republished that as fact, accompanied with a slideshow. Closer to home, a GOP congressman believed (and warned constituents about) a spoof story about Planned Parenthood opening up an $8 billion "Abortionplex."
Satirists aren't actively trying to trick readers, Gillis says. But when authoritarians fall for parody, "it really punctures their own sense of self-importance because they're showing that they're not a reasonable person."
These are particularly high-profile examples, because The Onion is such a prominent publication (in the brief it deadpans that it "has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history," which employs 350,000 journalists and also "operates the majority of the world's transoceanic shipping lanes ... and proudly conducts tests on millions of animals daily.").
But, as the brief points out, "the quality and taste of the parody is irrelevant" to the degree of legal protection it deserves.
"First Amendment rights should cover everyone and not just people who are able to afford large legal teams or who have an established track record of being parodists," Gillis tells NPR. "I just think it's a blanket law that everybody should be able to rally behind. And that is kind of an obvious win for all people."
The more literacy ordinary people have about the workings of satire and parody, the better off the conversation around it will be, he says. People have gotten mad at satirists for thousands of years, Gillis adds, but the current technological and political environment means that spoofs can be interpreted and critiqued in a more personal (and often partisan) way.
If there's one thing he wants people to know about parody, it's that "there's nothing going wrong if, for a little bit, you're taken in by a comedian," whether that's in the pages of a satirical news site or in the audience of a stand-up show.
"Having a bit more space afforded to satirists to do what they have been doing for thousands of years would be great," he says. "I think the more people that can consider that it's OK that they're being fooled briefly for parody to work, and to not take offense at that and to realize that that's just part of the form, I think that would be wonderful."
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Treisman has worn many digital hats since arriving at NPR as a National Desk intern in 2019. She's written hundreds of breaking news and feature stories, which are often among NPR's most-read pieces of the day.