May 13, 2014 10:28 am

Twitter Parody Controversy in Peoria, Illinois

The following is a statement from ACLU of Illinois Communications and Public Policy Director Ed Yohnka:

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In recent days, the ACLU of Illinois has received a number of inquiries from Peoria media about whether our organization intends to become involved in the matter concerning the response by Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and Peoria police to a Twitter account that sought to parody the Mayor. The ACLU of Illinois is very concerned about this matter. Parody of public officials is a long tradition in this country and in most democratic societies. It is a form of speech that enjoys a high level of protection under the First Amendment. Many elected officials, professional athletes, actors and celebrities are subjects of parody accounts on social media but this is the first instance, to our knowledge, in which a public official called on the power of the police to target those who author such accounts.

Political parody, according to some estimates, is at least 2,400 years old, dating back to the Greek dramatist Aristophanes’ critiques of Athenian strategy in the Peloponnesian War. Other notable parodies of political leaders and movements can be seen in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the political cartoons of Thomas Nast (who created the modern symbols for our national political parties), up to the modern day, with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, one of the most widely watched programs on cable television.

This parody never should have led to the procurement of a warrant, a search of a private home, the detention of any individual who resides in the residence and the seizure of electronic communication devices from the residence. Previously, we took steps to represent the interests of some of the persons affected. In late April, the ACLU acted on behalf of two individuals, Jon Daniel and Jacob Elliot, demanding that City police and the State’s Attorney immediately return all the cell phones, computer tablets, laptops and processors that were taken in the course of the search of these individual’s residence on April 15th. Those items were subsequently returned.

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.

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