This sounds like something out of a movie about the FBI going after pro-life activists. Anthony Novak is a budding parodist. Ignoring the First Rule of Law Enforcement — “The cop never thinks it is as funny as you do” — he decided to set up a Facebook page that parodied that of the Parma, OH, police department. It wasn’t like any, but the dimmest bulb could have mistaken the page for the actual Parma PD Facebook page.
Anthony’s parody page was modeled after the real department page. It had the same name and profile picture, but displayed the satirical slogan, “We no crime.” The posts on Anthony’s page were obvious parody and included things like the announcement of an “official stay inside and catch up with family day” to “reduce future crimes” during which anyone caught outside would be arrested.
A mature police department would’ve kept its eye on the ball and worried about crime, but then we wouldn’t have a story. This account is from the decision of the Sixth Circuit in Anthony Novak vs. City of Parma, OH.
According to Anthony Novak, he created “The City of Parma Police Department” Facebook account — a knockoff of the Department’s real page American right” of “[m]ocking our government officials — to exercise his “fundamental .” R. 6, Pg. ID 1238. And mock them he did. In less than a day, he published half-a-dozen posts “advertising” the Department’s efforts, including free abortions in a police van and a “Pedophile Reform event” featuring a “No means no” learning station. The page spread around Facebook. Some readers praised its comedy. Others criticized the page or called out that it was fake. (He deleted their comments.) And still others (nearly a dozen, in total) felt it necessary to call the police station. A few asked if the page was real. The rest expressed confusion or alerted the police to the fake page.
Once the Department heard about the page, it sprang into action. First, officers verified that the official page hadn’t been hacked. Then, they posted a notice on the Department’s actual page, confirming that it was the official account and warning that the fake page was “being investigated.” R. 1239, Pg. ID 24596. Novak then copied that post onto his knockoff page allegedly “[t]o deepen his satire.” R. 6, Pg. ID 1259.
Lieutenant Kevin Riley tasked Detective Thomas Connor with figuring out who ran the knockoff page. Connor sent a letter to Facebook, asking the company to preserve all records related to the account and take down the page. Riley issued a press release and appeared on the nightly news, announcing an investigation and warning the public about the fake page. Novak — worried he’d get in trouble for the page — took it down.
Yet the officers continued their investigation. Connor eventually got a search warrant for Facebook, and he discovered that Novak was the page’s author. Unsure what sort of case they had, Riley and Connor sought advice from Parma’s Law Director, Timothy Dobeck. Dobeck concluded they had probable cause and could seek two more warrants: an arrest warrant from Magistrate Judge Edward Fink and a search warrant from Judge Deanna O’Donnell. The grounds? An Ohio law that makes it illegal to use a computer to disrupt or impair police functions. Ohio Rev. Code § 2909.04(B ). Both judges found there was probable cause and issued the warrants.
With warrants in hand, the officers arrested Novak, searched his apartment, and seized his phone and laptop. He spent four days in jail before he made bond. Then prosecutors presen ted the case to a grand jury, which indicted him for disrupting police functions. But a jury later acquitted him. And after his acquittal, Novak brought dozens of claims against Riley, Connor, and the City of Parma. In a prior appeal, we granted qualified immunity to the officers on some claims. Novak v. City of Parma, 932 F.3d 421 (6th Cir. 2019). Now, Novak appeals the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants on the remaining claims.
While the decision says that some citizens believed that the site was real — a Pedophile Reform event” featuring a “No means no” learning station…really…is there lead in the water out there? — Jacob Sullum at Reason gives more context. The italics are mine.
Novak’s Facebook parody, which was live for all of 12 hours, copied the police department’s name and profile picture. But the account was listed under “community” pages rather than the designation for government agencies. For readers who might have overlooked that distinction, there were plenty of other clues that the page was an elaborate joke. Novak changed the department’s motto from “We know crime” to “We no crime,” for example, and his six posts were flagrantly farcical.
One post announced “our official stay inside and catch up with the family day,” during which anyone venturing outside between noon and 9 p.m. would be arrested. Another described a “Pedophile Reform event” where any participant who visited all of the “learning stations,” including a “‘no means no’ station filled with puzzles and quizzes,” would be “removed from the sex offender registry and accepted as an honorary police officer.” A job notice said anyone who passed a “15 question multiple choice definition test followed by a hearing test” would be “be accepted as an officer” but added that the department “is strongly encouraging minorities to not apply.”
The page noted the robbery of a local Subway outlet by a white man while seeking the public’s assistance in apprehending an “African American woman” who was wanted for loitering in front of the sandwich shop during the robbery. Another post warned Parma residents about a new law that barred them “from giving ANY HOMELESS person food, money, or shelter in our city for 90 days”—a measure aimed at encouraging “the homeless population” to “leave our city due to starvation.” An announcement offered teenagers abortions, to be performed in a van in the parking lot of a local supermarket “using an experimental technique discovered by the Parma Police Department.”
Eleven Facebook users called the police department’s nonemergency line about Novak’s spoof, which was the basis for the claim that he had disrupted police operations. When the case was presented to a grand jury, Detective Thomas Connor claimed the callers “honest to God believed” that Novak’s creation was the department’s official page. But when Novak sued Connor and six other officers, the Institute for Justice notes in its Supreme Court petition, “Connor admitted at deposition that none of the callers thought that.”
A Facebook page that was live for 12 hours and had six posts rated a subpoena to Facebook, several days of investigator (if we can call it that) time, and four days in jail for Novak.
The Sixth Circuit, relying on the, I think, unconstitutional “qualified immunity” doctrine, found that it was reasonable for those involved to believe they were following the law rather than engaging in a vendetta for “contempt of cop.”
Sometime this term, the Supreme Court will take up the case. It’s getting attention because The Onion has filed an amicus brief.
While there is a lot to laugh at here, the underlying issue is very real. This, just like the FBI bullying pro-life activists (FBI Agents Raid Home of Pro-Life Author With Guns Drawn in Front of His Screaming Kids and FBI Raids Home of Pro-Life Activist, Demands Others Turn Themselves In), is political thuggery but of a much more banal sort. The Parma police resented being mocked, if only by six posts over a 12-hour timeframe. Novak’s actions were completely legal, and the Parma police, as well as two judges, bootstrapped a Facebook page into an Ohio law that had nothing to do with Novak’s actions…otherwise, the law would be facially unconstitutional. They were able to jail him for four days and put him through the time and expense of a trial to teach him a lesson.
In Georgia, on July 10, 2014, a Coffee County officer, in the process of trying to apprehend an individual who “wandered” into another family’s yard, tried to shoot a non-threatening family dog in the vicinity of six children, including two kids under age three, but missed the shot. The dog retreated into the home. At no point was there anything to indicate this dog was threatening or bearing hostility towards anyone.
Officers then held the children at gunpoint and directed them to lay on the ground, an order with which the children complied. The dog once again approached officers, and an officer again attempted to shoot him, only to shoot a 10-year-old child instead. After the case went to court, the officer received qualified immunity.
We should hope the Supreme Court either throws out this garbage principle or severely restricts it because if we live in a constitutional republic and not a police state, bad conduct on the part of those in power should be painful.