PEORIA — A 29-year-old Peoria resident is suing the City, the Mayor and several officials for their role in transforming his Twitter parody of the Mayor into a police matter, leading to a raid on a home, the seizing of personal property and his arrest and detention. Jon Daniel is asking a federal court in Peoria to hold the Mayor, the City Manager, the former police chief and other 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. Mr. Daniel is represented in this case by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, who announced the lawsuit along with Mr. Daniel in Peoria today.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court yesterday afternoon, charges that Mayor Ardis, along with Peoria’s City Manager, the Assistant City Manager, the Chief Information Officer, former Chief of Police and two police detectives violated Mr. Daniel’s First and Fourth Amendment rights by launching a police investigation based on his speech and then searching his home as part of that investigation.
The events that have been dubbed “Twittergate” began on March 9, when Mr. Daniel created a Twitter account @peoriamayor. Mr. Daniel created the account mainly for his own entertainment and the amusement of his friends, whom he thought would be surprised to receive a re-tweet from the @peoriamayor account. Over the next ten days, Mr. Daniel retweeted and favorited posts from friends, and also issued a series of tweets from the account — which he clearly labeled parody several days after it was created — that used informal language, slang and even expletives.
“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,” according to Jon Daniel, the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the City. “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.”
According to local reporting and the facts alleged in the lawsuit, within hours of finding out about the existence of the @peoriamayor account, Mayor Jim Ardis directed the City Manager to involve the police department in order to find the author of the account. It is clear that Mayor Ardis was personally offended by the Twitter account. Days later on March 20th, City officials were able to convince Twitter to suspend the account, threatening litigation and other sanctions.
Even after the account had been suspended and no new messages were sent, the police involvement continued. On April 15th, Peoria police executed a search warrant on Mr. Daniel’s home. While Mr. Daniel was at work when the police arrived, his roommates and other friends were present at the home. The police searched the home, took a number of computers, telephones and other electronic devices into their possession, including Mr. Daniel’s computer, as well as a laptop and Xbox.
Shortly thereafter, a police detective phoned Mr. Daniel and told him that the police needed to speak with him. The police came to Mr. Daniel’s place of employment, searched him, placed him in a police car and drove him to the police station. There, he was required to empty his pockets, was read his rights and placed in an interrogation room. When Mr. Daniel demanded to see a lawyer, he was released, but the police confiscated his phone, which was Mr. Daniel’s only form of communication with the world.
“When I got home, I discovered that my room had been searched — there were drawers open, things were out of place and a box of pictures were dumped out on the floor, a box that included important pictures of my children and my life,” according to Mr. Daniel. “The next few days were like a blur for me. I was very scared and helpless. I could not sleep. I had a sense of impending doom.”
Mr. Daniel reports that the sense of doom was enhanced when the story about the search of the house exploded across the country. It only abated when the State’s Attorney announced that Mr. Daniel would not be charged with a crime.
“Political parody is a great tradition in the United States — from Thomas Nast to Jon Stewart,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois and the lead attorney representing Mr. Daniel. “In a number of public statements, the Mayor and Peoria officials have been unapologetic about their activities,” added Grossman. “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.”
Also representing Mr. Daniel are Karen Sheley and Roshni Shikari of the ACLU of Illinois and Marc Beem of the Chicago law firm Miller Shakman & Beem.