ACLU Sues After Illinois Mayor Has Cops Raid Guy Parodying Him on Twitter

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. Image: Ron Johnson/AP

Countless parody Twitter accounts have been created over the years — British Petroleum, Mark Zuckerberg, the NSA, the Queen of England and even God.

In each case, the target of the account either did nothing in response or simply requested that the owner of the account clearly label it a fake.

Not the mayor of Peoria, Illinois, however.

Mayor Jim Ardis directed his city manager to use the police to hunt down the author of a parody account about him and threatened Twitter with litigation unless it suspended the account, which it did. Now a man who was raided and arrested for creating the account is suing the mayor, a former police chief, and others for violating his constitutional rights.

Jonathan Daniel, 29, created the Twitter account @peoriamayor in March and used it primarily to amuse his friends by retweeting their comments as the mayor. Daniel sent out satiric tweets that contradicted the mayor’s clean-cut image by conveying the mayor as having a preoccupation with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Though he also sent out tweets from the account, he labeled it a parody account three days after he created it, and the account was only active 10 days before it closed.

“The joke of the account was to have my fictional mayor saying things that no one would possibly think that Mayor Jim Ardis would say,” Daniel said in a statement. “If the Mayor was concerned, all he had to do was tell the public that his was not his account and not his words, rather than involving the police.”

The matter didn’t end there, however. Peoria police obtained two warrants, under false pretenses the ACLU alleges, to obtain the subscriber IP address used with the Twitter account and to get Daniel’s home address from his internet service provider.

They also obtained a search warrant and on April 15 raided Daniel’s home while the defendant was at work and seized several computers, phones and other electronic devices while Daniel’s roommates were present. Police also arrived to Daniel’s place of employment where they searched him before arresting him for falsely impersonating a public official and taking him to the police station for interrogation. Daniel was only released after demanding to speak with a lawyer, but police refused to return his mobile phone or other property to him.

Illinois law defines false personation of a public official as someone “knowingly and falsely represent[ing] himself or herself to be . . . [a] public officer or a public employee or an official or employee of the federal government.”

But according to the ACLU, the provision only criminalizes false representations made in person. “Illinois courts require as an element of the offense that there be an intent to deceive the public that the impersonator is acting in the official capacity of a public official,” the organization notes in its complaint. But Daniel’s account “was not reasonably believable as conveying the voice or message of the actual mayor,” the group wrote, and Daniel had “no intention of deceiving people into believing the account was actually operated by a representative of the mayor or the mayor himself, and no reasonable person could conclude such an intent from the content of the tweets or the Twitter account’s profile page.”

Daniel was never charged with any crime because the state’s attorney determined that his conduct did not violate the false personation statute. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a lawsuit on his behalf today (.pdf) alleging that the mayor, city manager Patrick Urich, former police chief Steven Settingsgaard, and other officials violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

“Political parody is a great tradition in the United States – from Thomas Nast to Jon Stewart,” Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois said in a statement. “The only way to hold these government officials accountable is to have a federal court rule that their actions violated the fundamental constitutional rights of our client.”

No one at the mayor’s office was available to respond to questions. A clerk in the office said the mayor would be releasing a statement later today.

Provided from: wired.