Peoria Mayor Misses The Memo On Free Speech

By aaroncynic in News on Apr 24, 2014 7:20PM

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Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis
Last week, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis finally became fed up with a suspended parody Twitter account and enacted swift justice against his would-be social media detractors. Ardis filed a criminal complaint regarding the nefarious internet ne'er-do-well behind @Peoriamayor, who tweeted some 50 times to followers about the mayor’s unverified and supposed drug use and association with prostitutes.

Twitter suspended the account in March, which was marked as a parody a week before it ended, but Ardis understood a social media slight was comparable to lawless anarchy. Realizing a relatively unknown Twitter feed might destroy his reputation as an important civic leader, Ardis made sure the Peoria Police took care of the Internet miscreants. Peoria police executed a search warrant and raided a home in connection with the account, detained several people for questioning and seized computers and smart phones.

“They brought me in like I was a criminal,” Michelle Pratt told the Peoria Journal Star. Pratt was one of five people detained and questioned by police, three at the residence raided and two who were approached at their workplaces. According to the Daily Herald, it took seven plainclothes police officers to raid the residence where the suspect, Jacob L. Elliott, was arrested and booked on an unrelated marijuana charge. No charges have been filed against any of those questioned regarding the Twitter account.

Despite the fact that charges weren’t filed because no laws were broken, Ardis defended his use of the Peoria police and the court system to go after the perpetrators at a City Council meeting on Tuesday. Ardis told the City Council not only did he feel like a victim of identity theft but also “felt (like) a victim of sexual doggerel and filth. It was filth. It was absolute filth.” Ardis lamented his First Amendment rights were somehow trampled. “You can’t say (those tweets) on behalf of me,” he said. “That’s my problem. This guy took away my freedom of speech.”

City Council members, like the majority of people, were more rational. According to The Journal Star, at-large councilperson Chuck Weaver said “When we start going down the path on something like this, someone should be saying, ‘Hold on a minute, guys, let’s do a gut check here.” Beth Akeson, another at-large councilperson, said:

“I’m still struggling with how did it escalate to the level that it has, and now we’re the butt of jokes covered by every news station. We’ve lost our credibility about how we run things in Peoria.”

Indeed.

Ardis apparently missed the memo when it comes to parody of political figures being an expression of free speech, as well as the fact that Twitter has a large population of parody accounts for all sorts of celebrities, including political figures. It’s not surprising that Ardis also doesn’t seem to understand how the Internet works. Had he just let the account remain suspended and left it alone, Peoria wouldn’t be a punchline right now.

What isn’t funny is the heavy-handed use of a police department to squelch free speech. Thankfully, most rational people, including the Supreme Court, know this. According to the Marshfield News Herald, in striking down the 2012 Stolen Valor Act, which punished people who claimed military honors they never actually earned, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable.”

I would say we can hope someone a little more sensible with a better sense of humor takes office in Peoria after the next election, but I’d hate to have a half-dozen officers make the hours-long drive up to Chicago to question me about my own Twitter account.