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Constitutional Law

Peoria didn’t play in fake mayoral tweet case; cops’ search of account-holder’s home sparks lawsuit

Posted Jun 12, 2014 5:25 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A constitutional law drama is now unfolding in Peoria, where officials didn't play when they spotted fake posts being published on Twitter under the name of the Illinois city's mayor earlier this year.

Although Twitter account-holder Jonathan Daniel called the ridiculous, sometimes profane comments made in the @Peoriamayor tweets obvious parody, city officials weren't laughing, the Chicago Tribune reports. Within days of discovering the account, they were mounting a coordinated attempt to shut it down. A new misdemeanor statute making it a crime to impersonate a public official gave them the muscle they needed.

On April 15, some three weeks after Twitter temporarily suspended the account at the city's behest, a police raid, pursuant to a warrant, was conducted on the home in which the 29-year-old Daniel lived with others, according to the newspaper. Officers confiscated four computers, four iPhones, an iPad and two Xboxes, on the theory that they could have been used to send the tweets, and charged one of his roommates with marijuana possession.

Backed by the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the short-order cook filed a federal civil rights suit Wednesday alleging violation of his First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights and seeking unspecified damages. He was never criminally charged, because the misdemeanor statute apparently contained an exception for Internet use, as officials later discovered, according to the newspaper.

In a Thursday news conference, Mayor Jim Ardis defended the city's conduct and said the city had been harmed and he and his family had been threatened as a result of the tweets.

"My identity as mayor was stolen. Anyone reading the content would assume they were reading my comments as the mayor," he said, noting that the Twitter account used his actual photo and the city logo. "The media's continued claim that the content on the website amounted to harmless parody was as disgraceful as the comments themselves."

But Harvey Grossman, legal director of the ACLU in Illinois, portrayed Daniel as a classic commenter on the American political scene. "Political parody is a great tradition in the United States, from Thomas Nast to Jon Stewart," Grossman said.

The Associated Press and Wired also have stories.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Parody mayoral Twitter account spurs police raid and drug arrest; ACLU may sue"

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