These days, social media are a big part of politics. So when Rahm Emanuel embarked on his race for mayor of Chicago in 2010, it was no surprise to see @MayorEmanuel appear on Twitter.
The surprise came in the tweets, like a proposed campaign slogan: "Because Chicago is in a deeper (expletive) hole than the (expletive) Chilean miners. Vote Rahm." Or, when Wisconsin Democratic legislators fled to Illinois to prevent a vote: "(David) Axelrod and I just loaded the Civic up with beer. We're heading out to Rockford to (expletive) party with the exiled Wisconsin Democrats."
Anyone reading these profane messages would have needed, oh, five seconds to figure out the account was a joke. Nothing that sounded so much like the real Rahm could possibly be authentic. Emanuel took it in stride. "We check it periodically, and it's good for a few laughs," a press aide told the Tribune in 2011. Fun was had, and no harm was done.
Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis might have learned from that episode. In March, @peoriamayor started posting absurd messages like "I'm thinking it's a tequila and stripper night," and "Who stole my crack pipe?"
Anyone familiar with the earnest, clean-cut married father of three would quickly realize those tweets were not from Ardis. But instead of chuckling along with the few people following the account or shrugging it off, he took another approach: He ordered the police to find a way to shut it down.
The police tried to talk him out of it, explaining that no criminal law had been broken and that the tweets were not likely to sustain a defamation suit. They also reported it to Twitter, and the account was soon labeled a parody. But that wasn't enough for Ardis. Eventually, he prodded the cops to find the perpetrator, raid his house and seize his electronic devices.
The excessive reaction would be hilarious if it weren't so outrageous to punish a citizen merely because he poked fun at a public official. And now Ardis and other city officials are the object of a lawsuit by 29-year-old Jon Daniel. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois says his constitutional rights were violated, and that claim seems plausible.
Ardis didn't do himself any favors when he recently appeared before reporters to defend himself and attack the news media. He insisted that his identity was stolen and that anyone seeing the account would believe it belonged to him. If the tweets were "harmless parody," he said, why didn't the press report the actual contents?
He then read aloud some of the more profane passages — which means that from now until the end of time, Web users will be able to see and hear Ardis uttering the same comments he claims were so damaging. You don't expect a mayor to stand before TV cameras and say, "Woke up with (bleep) on my breath and bloodshot eyes," but Ardis did.
If he hoped to deter other satirists by going after Daniel, he failed. There are now several other fake accounts, like @JimArdisMayor, which says, "Completely Real Mayor of Peoria AND I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN IF YOU PRETEND TO BE ME."
What started out as a trivial exercise in entertainment has brought the mayor, thanks to his own intemperance, nationwide ridicule and a legal fight he may lose. Years from now, his response will be studied as a model of what a public official can do to make a fool of himself. Peoria taxpayers surely have their own thoughts on a mayor who would waste the costly time of other high-ranking city employees on pursuing his private obsession.
In the meantime, two things are recommended for Ardis and anyone else who wants to take part in politics in the modern era: a thick skin and a sense of humor.