Emails Show Peoria Police Knew There Was No Legal Basis To Pursue Twitter User Who Parodied Mayor Jim Ardis [Updated]
from the but,-you-know,-whatever-it-takes-to-keep-the-mayor-happy dept
Thanks to FOIA requests, more information has been uncovered about Peoria, IL mayor Jim Ardis’ quest to shut down a parody Twitter account. Shawn Musgrave at Muckrock has secured copies of the warrants and police reports related to the Peoria Police Dept.’s raid of Jon Daniel, the person behind the not-even-illegal @peoriamayor Twitter account. Matt Buedel at the Peoria Journal-Star has obtained email correspondence between the mayor and the police department.
Justin Glawe at Vice has more details, including the fact that Mayor Ardis and his office pushed hard to prosecute the owner of this Twitter account despite there being no evidence that any laws had been broken.
Ardis and others learned of the account on March 11 and sent dozens of emails over the next few days, apparently panicked by the idea that someone with a few dozen Twitter followers was making fun of the mayor. On March 12, Ardis himself asked City Manager Patrick Urich, “Any chance we can put a sense of urgency on this?” Urich passed that request on to Settingsgaard, saying, “Quickly please.”
Ardis (and his office) pursued this vigorously, telling the Chief of Police (Steve Settingsgaard) that he definitely wanted to prosecute. The first of three search warrants went out March 13th, at which point the Twitter account had already been marked as a parody. Twitter informed the city of this fact, but the push went on regardless. Twitter yanked the account on March 20th, but that still didn’t stop Ardis from pushing a very compliant police department into raiding Daniel’s home on April 15th.
Glawe points out that, according to obtained emails, the police were initially reluctant to pursue this as they could see no evidence of any laws being broken, at least according to an email sent by Chief Settingsgaard to Mayor Ardis on March 11th.
Mayor/Manager, I reviewed this matter with Detective Feehan. He is in the process of shutting down the account as you saw from my last email. This phony Twitter account does not constitute a criminal violation in that no threats are made. I’m not sure if it would support a civil suit for defamation of character. I’m not an expert in the civil arena but my recollection is that public officials have very limited protection from defamation. I asked (Feehan) about identity theft and he advised it did not qualify because the statute requires the use of personal identifying information such as a social security number, DOB, etc., and a financial gain form (sic) the use of that information. Twitter does not require identifying information other than an email address and name, and there appears to be no financial gain.
Detective Feehan followed this up with his own email, again confirming that Daniel appeared to have broken no laws with his parody account, as well as pointing out he had asked for Twitter to remove the account.
But Detective Feehan, being the detective he is, dug around in Illinois law until he found the state’s “false personification” statute and used this to pursue the owner of the account. The Peoria Police were able to push this past local judges with a very expansive warrant, which also contained claims that the occupants of the house were likely involved in some very nasty criminal activity.
In his search warrant affidavit, detective Stevie Hughes wrote that there was “probable cause to believe” that the seized data would contain “evidence, fruits, contraband, and instrumentalities of the dissemination and possession of child pornography.”
This, along with a claim that the house would be full of drug paraphernalia related to “cocaine and heroin” use, was used to justify the seizure of nearly every electronic device in the house.
Post-backlash, the district attorney (whose office played a big part in crafting the three warrants used in this case) announced that no charges would be filed in relation to the Twitter account. That doesn’t do much to help Daniel’s friend, who is still facing drug charges for possession of marijuana thanks to the Peoria police’s willingness to help Mayor Ardis violate others’ First Amendment rights.
Glawe’s personal blog contains even more information about this debacle, including an email interview with Chief Settingsgaard (where he claims — using some doublespeak — that Mayor Ardis was “not aware” of the search warrants in advance), and more details about the city council meeting that followed the story becoming national news.
April Clemons, who was one of several to speak in the public comments portion of a meeting that stretched nearly to 11 p.m., told Mayor Jim Ardis she is the “proud owner of a new Jim Ardis parody account.”
Clemons then told Ardis he “screwed up.” Near the end of her comments, Clemons turned to Chief of Police Steve Settingsgaard and told him the same.
For his part, Chief Settingsgaard defended his actions, along with the actions of his officers, saying he was not a “jack-booted thug” and that he was “pleasantly surprised” that only four officers served the warrant at Daniel’s residence (contrary to earlier reports of seven officers being involved). “Normally, there’s more.”
Mayor Ardis, after defending his actions by claiming that a.) the existence of a parody Twitter account took away his free speech rights, and b.) that it was the media’s fault that he looked like a thin-skinned, power-abusing ass, has remained completely silent about the incident. Perhaps this has been prompted by the city’s lawyers, who realize they may soon be on the receiving end of civil rights lawsuits because of the police department’s actions.
Update: the ACLU of Illinois has announced that it will be representing Jon Daniel in a civil rights lawsuit against the city officials.
The ACLU of Illinois now represents Mr. Daniel, the creator of the Twitter parody. Mr. Daniel, like other parodists, has a First Amendment right to post these tweets. He was engaging in a time-honored tradition of poking fun at public officials — even when the public official doesn’t like it. Because Mr. Daniel’s activities were protected, they should never have led to a warrant and search of his home. The police activity in this case was unnecessary and contrary to both the First and Fourth Amendment protections to which he was entitled.
In the coming weeks, the ACLU of Illinois anticipates bringing legal action in support of Mr. Daniel against those officials who are responsible for the violations of his rights. We hope this action will send a strong signal to all that wrongful use of the police power to suppress protected speech, even when it is critical or makes fun of public officials is an abuse of power and is not acceptable.