Man Arrested For Parodying Police Department's Facebook Page Sues City, PD Over Rights Violations
from the bullies-and-crybabies dept
Because an Ohio police department couldn’t handle being (momentarily) mocked, it’s now being sued by the man officers arrested after he created a spoof of the department’s Facebook page.
Earlier this year, Anthony Novak parodied the Parma (OH) Police Department’s Facebook page, posting obviously fake announcements from the faux department like the following:
The Parma Civil Service Commission will conduct a written exam for basic Police Officer for the City of Parma to establish an eligibility list. The exam will be held on March 12, 2016. Applications are available February 14, 2016, through March 2, 2016. Parma is an equal opportunity employer but is strongly encouraging minorities to not apply.
The test will consist of a 15 question multiple choice definition test followed by a hearing test. Should you pass you will be accepted as an officer of the Parma Police Department.
Other postings not quite as charming, but definitely as fake, included announcements of the PD’s new roving abortion van, a “Pedophile Reform event,” plans to arrest anyone caught outside between noon and 9 pm, and a ban on feeding the homeless to better serve the city’s plan to eradicate the problem through starvation.
Novak did copy the department’s logo and the Facebook page did look similar… right up until readers read the posts, or noticed the fake department’s motto: “We No Crime.”
Rather than leave this in Facebook’s hands (or just leave it alone altogether), the Parma police decided to greet the situation head on. It came up with a charge to use to go after Novak: use of a computer to “disrupt, interrupt or impair” police services. Then it went after him, mustering far more force than would seem to be necessary to handle a bogus Facebook page. Jacob Sullum of Reason recaps the stupidity.
Parma police…launched an investigation that involved at least seven officers, a subpoena and three search warrants, and a raid on Novak’s apartment, during which the cops surprised his roommate on the toilet and seized two hard drives, a laptop, two tablets, two cellphones, and two video game systems. After his arrest on March 25, Novak spent four days in jail before he got out on bail, and then he had to report weekly to a probation officer if he wanted to keep his freedom.
The charge was obviously bogus. Statements made in defense of the PD’s actions mainly focused on the derogatory nature of the posts. But very little was said about how a Facebook page that was up for less than two days and gathered only 300 followers made it more difficult for the police to continue servicing the community. It would seem the diversion of seven officers to a stupid investigation with obvious Constitutional implications would be far more disruptive to public service.
While the Parma police obviously found a judge willing to overlook their extremely questionable assertions when signing warrants, it had no similar luck when attempting to prosecute Novak.
Someone in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office evidently had second thoughts about the case, because Novak was offered a plea deal under which the felony charge would have been reduced to an unspecified misdemeanor. Novak turned the offer down, by that point eager to have his day in court. By the time his trial rolled around, prosecutors had settled on the theory that Novak’s Facebook gag had disrupted police services by generating phone calls to the police department—a grand total of 10 in 12 hours. The jury did not buy it, and everyone who was involved in the case should have known better than to let it get that far.
The end result is a lawsuit [PDF], which will definitely impair the community’s trust in the police department. Novak alleges First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations — all stemming from the warrants issued to the PD which, if determined to be bogus, support his Fourth and Fourteenth claims. As for the First Amendment, Novak’s parody page was protected speech and the Parma police had no business using their powers to shut it down, much less arrest the page’s creator.
As for the PD’s supporting affidavits, they appear incredibly weak according to what’s documented in the lawsuit. There was more made about the content of the page being “derogatory” than about the supposed criminal activity Novak (obviously didn’t) engage in: disruption of government services.
That being said, it will be tough to prevent immunity from being awarded to most, if not all, of the participants in this censorious travesty. Unless the Parma police have specific guidance or training that encourages them to trample all over citizens’ First Amendment rights, it’s unlikely the allegations will survive a motion to dismiss. Then again, the PD didn’t just tread lightly on Novak’s free speech — it steamrolled him with a trumped-up felony charge, seizure of all of his devices, and jailed him for four days. The city may find it more expedient to settle this quickly than take the chance of Novak prevailing completely.
The Parma PD should have limited itself to informing particularly stupid/gullible citizens that the parody page wasn’t the real thing. Then it should have left it alone. Instead, it leveraged its power to avenge its hurt feelings, resulting in a tantrum that could prove to be very expensive.