According to the wildly popular satirical site, The Babylon Bee, if you can’t make fun of the government and its officials, there’s no point in having a First Amendment.
Speaking to Fox News Digital, Babylon Bee editor-in-chief Kyle Mann said, “That’s a scary society if you can’t make fun of the government.”
The biting Babylon was famously tossed off Twitter, a move that many believe inspired Elon Musk to buy the social media platform.
But the Bee is willing to fight for the right to giggle.
Recently, the outlet, joined by fellow funny favorite, The Onion, filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, urging the justices to hear the case of Anthony Novak, who, in 2016, created a Facebook page that mocked his Parma, Ohio, police department.
Citing Ohio law that prevents the use of a computer to “disrupt” or “interrupt” police functions, Novak was arrested for his six posts and was jailed and prosecuted.
“Novak was acquitted and he eventually sued for the violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights,” Fox News Digital reports, “but the Sixth Circuit found that there was probable cause to believe Novak’s protected speech was criminal and the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.”
According to Mann, The Babylon Bee and The Onion, known for more left-leaning laughs, want the Supreme Court to protect private citizens who dip their toes in the parody pool.
“What we’re trying to do is get this heard by the Supreme Court so that a private citizen who is doing a parody of, you know, whoever it is, especially government entities and police and those in authority aren’t in danger… those people wouldn’t be in danger of being arrested for that,” Mann said.
While the Ohio police argued that Novak caused so much confusion in the community, his page warranted an emergency shutdown. Mann believes the department just didn’t get the joke — and their lack of a sense of humor shouldn’t trump the First Amendment.
“I think it was probably fairly obvious that it was a parody page from some of the stuff that he posted,” Mann said. “But at the same time… whether a parody is distinguishable from reality or not should not be a factor in whether or not it’s protected by the First Amendment.”
“In fact,” Mann explained, “parody requires some kind of buy-in from the audience in order to work as parody and satire.”
Even the amicus brief included some levity.
Filed on October 28, the brief argues that “parody is essential to a free society” and states, “The Onion may be staffed by socialist wackos, but in their brief defending parody to this Court, they hit it out of the park.”
“Parody has a unique capacity to speak truth to power and to cut its subjects down to size,” Babylon Bee legal counsel Emmett E. Robinson wrote. “Its continued protection under the First Amendment is crucial to preserving the right of citizens to effectively criticize the government.”
“Furthermore, parody shouldn’t be stripped of constitutional protection just because it’s not clearly labeled as parody,” the brief continues. “And requiring that parody be written so as to ensure that the most gullible in our society— the Facebook-using grandmother, the tween TikTok addict, the CNN reporter—don’t take it seriously ruins the parody for everyone else.”
On that point, The Babylon Bee may run into problems with Musk, who on Thursday tweeted, “Going forward, accounts engaged in parody must include ‘parody’ in their name, not just in bio.”
Failing to do so, the billionaire Chief Twit decreed, will get you suspended.
Going forward, accounts engaged in parody must include “parody” in their name, not just in bio
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 11, 2022
In a follow-up tweet, Musk clarified his point — one which would likely exempt the Bee and The Onion.
“To be more precise, accounts doing parody impersonations,” he stated. “Basically, tricking people is not ok.”
“We’re adding a ‘Parody’ subscript to clarify,” he added.
We’re adding a “Parody” subscript to clarify
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 11, 2022
But the point is the same: Musk wants to avoid the same “confusion” the Ohio police department was eager to do away with.
But, says Robinson, parody is, for citizens, one of the “most effective” ways to criticize the government.
“Like Mr. Novak, The Bee is frequently the target of censorship and attacks from powerful people who don’t get—or at least don’t appreciate—its jokes,” Robinson wrote. “The Bee has faced the ire of a diverse group of establishment-media types—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN—and the wrath of the massive tech companies who functionally control the lion’s share of public debate in our society.”
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” he argued. “And fiction is illegal. At least in the Sixth Circuit. That court’s decision—depriving Petitioner Anthony Novak of any opportunity to hold accountable those who searched his home, arrested him, and jailed him because the parody he wrote was too effective—should be reviewed by this Court on the merits.”
“First, parody plays an invaluable role in a free society,” he explained. “When parody is imperiled, citizens are deprived of one of their most effective means of criticizing the government. Second, the Sixth Circuit’s ruling will allow the state to punish vast swaths of speech erstwhile protected by the First Amendment. The Bee and its writers could be held criminally liable for many, if not most, of the articles The Bee publishes.”
According to the brief, “the prospect that an individual or entity charged with a speech crime might ultimately be vindicated at a criminal trial does little, if anything, to temper the speech-chilling effects of the decision below.”
The Sixth Circuit’s decision regarding Novak was a “qualified-immunity-on-steroids approach,” Robinson stated, that will open the door for state actors to prosecute those who engage in satire at will.
“Knowledge that they may be searched, arrested, jailed, and prosecuted without recourse is enough to dissuade most would-be speakers, regardless of the potential for ultimate acquittal,” the brief argued.
According to Mann, the Novak case is “actually the government coming after speech,” a move he called “chilling.”
“It’s the government cracking down and saying, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t make fun of this police department,’” he said. “So it is certainly an attack on comedy, and I do think it’s kind of downstream from culture where we’ve arrived at a place in a society where people can’t understand humor a lot anymore. They don’t recognize humor. And for us, that’s concerning as people whose entire careers and livelihoods depend on humor thriving in our culture.”
For the edgy editor, protecting humor under the First Amendment is crucial.
“Especially humor that makes fun of government officials,” he stressed. “I mean, that’s one of our great national pastimes is mocking the government. Humor is one of the most powerful tools for communicating truth, it’s one of the most powerful tools for making a point.”
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