It’s rare that American website the Onion can be taken at face value, earning a reputation as the internet’s home of satire thanks to such headlines as “Rest Of U2 Perfectly Fine With Africans Starving”, “Drugs Win Drug War” and “Man Dies After Secret 4-Year Battle With Gorilla”. 

Now, though, they’re wading into a serious legal battle that could have a profound impact on the future of satire.

The Onion? Are they the ones who wrote those hilarious “WE MUST PUT FAITH IN BORIS” (2021) and “PUT FAITH IN TRUSS TO DELIVER FOR BRITAIN” (2022) headlines?

No, that’s the Daily Express.

Ah. So what’s the Onion?

A Chicago-based satirical publication, founded in 1988. Their stories are regularly shared with ‘Eh? What’s this about?’ comments by confused uncles on Facebook. 

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Presumably someone who, say, made their fortune in computers wouldn’t be so easily caught out online…

You would think. And yet, in April 2018 Amstrad founder and Katie Hopkins-enabler Alan Sugar fell for an Onion headline reading “Taylor Swift Grateful Kanye West Controversy Taking Heat Off New Swastika Tattoo”. Sugar tweeted: “Eh, I don’t get this. Can someone explain is she making a statement or what?”. 

Does the Onion serve an even more important function than catching out gormless billionaires?

While many Onion headlines are derived from pop culture (“Rod Stewart Mistaken For Elderly Aunt”) or social observation (“Horrified Man Looks On Powerlessly As He Ruins Date”), they often deploy satire to make serious points.

Their “‘No Way To Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” article is frequently published in the wake of mass shootings, with only the location and number of victims changing. That it’s been published 25 times in eight years is a damning indictment of America’s gun problem.

Presumably, then, the freedom to keep producing satire is important to them.

It is, which is why they’ve intervened in a dispute between Ohio resident Anthony Novak and the Parma Police Department, who in 2016 arrested Novak for parodying them on Facebook. His crime? Using a computer to “disrupt, interrupt or impair” police services. 

Be more specific.

He set up a fake Facebook page in which the department’s motto was changed from ‘We know crime’ to ‘We no crime’. 

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Throw away the key.

He was acquitted, but a US appeals court backed the police in May after Novak sued them. He’s now appealed to the Supreme Court, prompting the Onion to file an amicus brief. 

Which is…

A brief submitted by an outside party with the aim of influencing the court’s decision. In this case, the Onion believe satirists should not be forced to explicitly label their output as such, as this “would strip parody of the very thing that makes it function”. 

A response to Novak’s appeal is due on October 28.

It would be ironic if the Onion turned this into a satirical headline.

Summarising their argument in the brief, they said: “Ohio Police Officers Arrest, Prosecute Man Who Made Fun of Them on Facebook”.