From a free speech and public relations perspective, this is an interesting one.
Jim Ardis is the Mayor of Peoria, Illinois, a city of about 115,000. Nine weeks ago, the Mayor found himself on the wrong end of a Twitter parody account, @PeoriaMayor, which has since been suspended. By and large, the account contained tweets about the Mayor doing drugs and hanging with prostitutes. It didn’t say that it was a parody until a week before it was suspended, and that is something which is required by Twitter guidelines. Nothing too out of the ordinary here.
Things took a turn for the ugly on April 15th, when Peoria Police executed a search warrant at the home of Jacob Elliot, under the suspicion that Elliot was impersonating a public official. Seven officers, wearing bullet proof vests, raided Elliot’s home, confiscating computers and smart phones. Police ultimately discovered that the author of the account was Elliot’s roommates, Jon Daniel. Elliot, however, is the one in real trouble: police seized enough marijuana to charge him with felony possession, and Elliot has been suspended from his job.
No shortage of legal experts have been quoted as questioning the propriety of the raid:
“I find it very troubling,” said Angela Campbell, a professor at Georgetown University Law School. “It chills people’s First Amendment rights to criticize officials … whether it’s through parody or just calling somebody a jerk.”
Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, raised similar concernsabout free speech and the impersonation issue.
“This absolutely raises concerns for me,” he said. “Under the Constitution, you can criticize people in power. It’s how you can tell the difference between a democracy and a police state. And you can do it through humor.”
Local officials are upset as well:
There was too much power of force used on these pranksters,” said [Jim] Montelongo, the 4th District councilman. “It made it look like the mayor received preferential treatment that other people don’t get or will never get.
Ultimately, Peoria County State Attorneys declined to file charges under impersonating a public official, noting that the relevant statute of the law made no mention of electronic impersonation.
At a City Council meeting, Mayor Ardis defended his actions: “It went way over the line. For that reason, my immediate reaction was a deeply personal one on behalf of my family and myself. As a person, I felt a victim of sexual doggerel and filth. It was filth. It was absolute filth.”
I literally don’t think this could have been handled worse by the Mayor. The account had fifty followers and thus necessitated a police raid? The only thing that the Twitter account actually did wrong was not mark itself as a parody, which it eventually corrected. Parody accounts do have to be noted as as a parody account, and prior to that, I don’t think the Mayor would have been wrong in filing a complaint with Twitter. But to send police for an account that had around fifty followers is beyond an over reaction. It takes a very small story and makes it a national scandal. Many of the articles about this event noted the First Amendment concerns over this action, and they are totally valid, as far as I’m concerned. As public officials, people have the right to parody us. That’s the way it is and it’s what we get, as electeds, for stepping into the limelight. The Mayor is now on the wrong end of a lot of backlash, and it’s well deserved. He never should have handled the situation this way.
And worst of all? A new Twitter parody account, @NotPeoriaMayor, has been created – and it has over 1,400 followers.
What would you have done if you were the Mayor? I’d love to hear from you – let me know in the comments!