(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Monday said an Ohio man who was acquitted of a felony after creating a parody Facebook page that mocked a suburban Cleveland police department can sue the city and two police officers over his arrest.
In a 3-0 decision, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said Anthony Novak can pursue several claims over his March 2016 posting of what he admitted was an “insulting parody” of the Parma police department’s Facebook page.
Novak had sued for damages after being acquitted in August 2016 of disrupting police services over his parody page, which was taken down after about 12 hours.
The page included several posts, including for a food drive to help teenagers obtain abortions, a recruitment ad “strongly encouraging minorities to not apply,” and a “pedophile reform event” encouraging attendees to obtain honorary police officer status and “have fun out there!”
Circuit Judge Amul Thapar, an appointee of U.S. President Donald Trump, rejected claims by officers Kevin Riley and Thomas Connor that they were immune from being sued, and said he lacked jurisdiction for now to dismiss Novak’s claims against the city.
He said Novak could try to show a jury that his Facebook page was constitutionally protected parody under the First Amendment, and that Parma police imposed a prior restraint on his speech and acted in bad faith.
Thapar dismissed claims that the officers violated Novak’s right to speak anonymously and illegally censored his speech in a public forum, saying those claims were not grounded in clearly established law.
“Novak’s page delighted, disgusted, and confused. Not everyone understood it,” Thapar wrote. “But when it comes to parody, the law requires a reasonable reader standard, not a ‘most gullible person on Facebook’ standard. The First Amendment does not depend on whether everyone is in on the joke.”
Steven Strang, a lawyer for the defendants, declined to comment.
Novak’s lawyer, Subodh Chandra, welcomed the decision. “This case goes to the heart of what it means to be an American,” he said in an interview. “We have not only the right to criticize government, but to mock it mercilessly.”
The appeals court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland.
The case is Novak v City of Parma et al, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 18-3373.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and Bill Berkrot