In March of this year, Peoria resident Jon Daniel set up a satire Twitter account using the name of the town’s elected mayor, Jim Ardis. Using slang and swearwords, Daniel then tweeted a series of jokes. No one in their right mind would have thought this naughty, unprofessional account was actually that of the elected Mayor. That’s why it was funny.
So, Mayor Ardis reacted just as you’d expect: he leant back, belly-laughed, and went on with his day. Er, no. Instead, he got the account suspended by threatening Twitter with legal action; ordered the city manager to use the police to track down the account owner’s identity; told the chief of police he wanted to prosecute; and urged the police on to a raid on Mr. Daniel’s home, resulting in his arrest and detention and the seizure of his computer, laptop, and XBOX.
Here’s what Ardis somehow overlooked when he swore his oath to uphold the U.S Constitution. We have a rich tradition of parody and satire in this country, protected fully by our glorious First Amendment. And Twitter offers a broad public platform perfect for carrying on this tradition.
For example, you might suspect that the NSA Public Relations feed isn’t being tweeted from Fort Meade when it shares such “non-classified information” as the identity of the American with the largest porn collection. Or that when Elizabeth Windsor’s twitter recasts Guns n’ Roses lyrics with royal pronouns (“take One down to the Paradise City…”) she might not be The Actual Queen. Or when Chuck Norris says he’s “the reason Waldo is hiding,”…well, wait. That might actually be Chuck Norris.
The people who run these accounts aren’t criminals. They’re humorists. And this isn’t up for debate. When the Supreme Court—not generally known for its light take on life—was asked whether Hustler magazine had the right to feature a fake confession from the Reverend Jerry Falwell about losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse, it wasn’t a tough question. Undignified, maybe, but easy. The court ruled unanimously in favor of Hustler’s right to parody the famous preacher without facing civil or criminal penalties.
So here’s the rub: we have a constitutionally protected right to make fun of people who place themselves squarely in the public eye. You just don’t get to run for president and then throw people who mock you in jail. Unless you’re in Turkey. Or, apparently, Mayor Ardis seems to think, Peoria.
So what’s to be done for Mr. Daniel, who’s had his life, and literally his house, turned upside-down in response to protected speech? Thankfully, the ACLU is here to remind the self-important autocrats in Peoria about those pesky constitutional limits on their authority to jail people whose jokes don’t make them laugh.
This week, the ACLU of Illinois filed a righteous lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Daniel, seeking to hold “City officials accountable for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights by responding to a parody account spoofing the Mayor by launching a manhunt for the account’s author.” This suit represents the steadfast defense of the right to free speech, a free and open internet, and ultimately, richer and more humorous public discourse.
It’s sad that a joke has gone this far, and that nothing but a lawsuit will remedy the ridiculously overblown and unconstitutional response of Ardis and his cronies. But I guess the pompous politicians of Peoria have done one nice thing: produce a whole lot of additional fodder for well-deserved parody. Since the @PeoriaMayor feed was suspended, perhaps I’ll have to take up the mantle; this time, in the guise of Mayor Ardis’ new role, Direktor of the Illinois Ministry of Truth. (Come at me, Ardis. Please.)
As the saying doesn’t go: sue ‘em if they can’t take a joke.