Free speech and what’s known as “qualified immunity,” as well as “overcriminalization” – expansion of the criminal code in the US to address even minor problems in society – is at the heart of a case that started in 2016 with a short-lived parody page Anthony Novak had set up on Facebook.
Novak was subsequently arrested and spent several days in jail – much longer than the lifespan of his page critical of the police in Parma, Ohio – a page that was up only 12 hours.
In addition, the police confiscated his phone and computer. His “crime” was the humor he was using to express his opinions about the local law enforcement: posts like one “advertising” free abortions performed in a police van, and an “event” under the motto, “Pedophile Reform.”
Some Facebook users complained – about ten of them according to court records – but that was enough for the police to go to the trouble of getting three warrants: to arrest Novak, search his apartment, and deal with Facebook. The charge was “using a computer to hinder police duties,” an accusation based on little-known (and in this case, a court eventually found, invoked incorrectly) state law.
Novak eventually had a jury trial that resulted in his acquittal. But he then went on to sue the officers who arrested him for violating his constitutional rights. However, the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit did not support his claims.
Judge Amul Thapar found that while what Novak posted on Facebook was protected speech, the way he went about setting up his parody page did not qualify as that – because he used the same profile picture as the local police department and removed a comment saying this was not an official page. And “when the Department tried to clarify that Novak’s page was imitating its own, he copied the official page’s clarification post word for word,” said Thapar.
Nevertheless, the judge found that the officers did qualify for something called “qualified immunity” – a status stemming from lack of legal precedent that protects government officials who are accused of violating constitutional rights.
This last part of the ruling means that Novak was unable to have another jury trial and argue his case regarding the violation of free speech rights allegation.
We obtained a copy of the decision for you here.