Judge Says First Amendment Covers Man Who Was Prosecuted For Parody Parma Police Facebook Page

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A federal judge on Thursday refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a man who was arrested, charged and ultimately acquitted for creating a parody Facebook page mocking the Parma Police Department.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster ruled Thursday that the First Amendment protected Anthony Novak’s right to create the fake page back in 2016. The city of Parma asked Polster to toss the lawsuit, but the judge determined Novak has shown enough evidence that a trial is warranted.

“Plaintiff alleges facts, which if proven, show that the officer defendants abused their police power to punish plaintiff for exercising his First Amendment rights,” Polster wrote in his decision. “Absent a significant disruption in police operations, plaintiff cannot be harassed or prosecuted for his speech.”

Novak, 28, created the Facebook page in March 2016 and was arrested that same month. The decision to charge him with a crime drew ire from online supporters and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

The fake Facebook page was live for less than a day and gathered fewer than 100 followers before Novak took it down, according to his lawsuit.

Novak and his attorneys contend the page was an obvious parody. In the “about” section, Novak replaced the slogan “We know crime” with “We no crime.” He put up a fake job posting on the page and rewrote a section to “strongly” encourage minorities not to apply.

Another post touted a law against feeding homeless people, and another claimed Parma police would offer free abortions to teenagers in a grocery store parking lot.

Parma police learned of the fake page and immediately issued a news release announcing a criminal investigation into the account. Novak was eventually arrested and charged with disrupting public service, a fourth-degree felony.

Police and prosecutors argued the fake page led to public confusion, and distracted 911 dispatchers who took calls about it. But evidence revealed at trial showed the police department received 10 phone calls about the page, adding up to a total of 12 minutes.

A jury eventually found Novak not guilty, and he filed a lawsuit alleging Parma police department violated his First Amendment right to free speech and his constitutional rights against unlawful search, seizure, arrest and prosecution.

Polster wrote in Thursday’s opinion that detective’s report on the page “contains no allegation or evidence that any police services were disrupted by the Facebook Page.” Investigators did not show “a single police function or service that was disrupted by Plaintiff’s Facebook Page” in an affidavit trying to get Facebook to shut down the page and divulge the IP address of the user who created it.

The judge also said a detective included a “misrepresentation” in an affidavit to obtain a search warrant, claiming Novak posed as a representative of the police department and altered the department’s official page.

The detective received the warrant, and a SWAT team stormed Novak’s apartment and seized every electronic device he owned, including two laptops, two hard drives, two video game consoles, two cellphones and a computer tablet.

Source: http://www.cleveland.com/court-justice/index.ssf/2018/04/first_amendment_covers_man_who_1.html#incart_river_index