A man who was arrested over a Facebook parody aimed at his local police department is trying to take his case to the Supreme Court. He has sought help from an unlikely source, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Monday. –The New York Times,Area Man Is Arrested for Parody. The Onion Files a Supreme Court Brief.
And oh, what a Supreme Court legal brief The Onion did file. I just got around to reading it, and just had to share it.
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. Indeed, “Ohio Police Officers Arrest, Prosecute Man Who Made Fun of Them on Facebook” might sound like a headline ripped from the front pages of The Onion—albeit one that’s considerably less amusing because its subjects are real.
Tu stultus es. You are dumb. These three Latin words have been The Onion’s motto and guiding light since it was founded in 1988 as America’s Finest News Source, leading its writers toward the paper’s singular purpose of pointing out that its readers are deeply gullible people.
The Onion’s motto is central to this brief for two important reasons. First, it’s Latin. And The Onion knows that the federal judiciary is staffed entirely by total Latin dorks: They quote Catullus in the original Latin in chambers. They sweetly whisper “stare decisis” into their spouses’ ears. They mutter “cui bono” under their breath while picking up after their neighbors’ dogs. So The Onion knew that, unless it pointed to a suitably Latin rallying cry, its brief would be operating far outside the Court’s vernacular.
The second reason—perhaps mildly more important—is that the phrase “you are dumb” captures the very heart of parody: tricking readers into believing that they’re seeing a serious rendering of some specific form—a pop song lyric, a newspaper article, a police beat—and then allowing them to laugh at their own gullibility when they realize that they’ve fallen victim to one of the oldest tricks in the history of rhetoric.
This is the fifteenth page of a convoluted legal filing intended to deconstruct the societal implications of parody, so the reader’s attention is almost certainly wandering. That’s understandable. So here is a paragraph of gripping legal analysis to ensure that every jurist who reads this brief is appropriately impressed by the logic of its argument and the lucidity of its prose: Bona vacantia. De bonis asportatis. Writ of certiorari. De minimis. Jus accrescendi. Forum non conveniens. Corpus juris. Ad hominem tu quoque. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Quod est demonstrandum. Actus reus. Scandalum magnatum. Pactum reservati dominii.
See what happened? This brief itself went from a discussion of parody’s function—and the quite serious historical and legal arguments in favor of strong protections for parodic speech—to a curveball mocking the way legalese can be both impenetrably boring and belie the hollowness of a legal position. That’s the setup and punchline idea again. It would not have worked quite as well if this brief had said the following: “Hello there, reader, we are about to write an amicus brief about the value of parody. Buckle up, because we’re going to be doing some fairly outré things, including commenting on this text’s form itself!”
Taking the latter route would have spoiled the joke and come off as more than a bit stodgy. But more importantly, it would have disarmed the power that comes with a form devouring itself.