A recent news report about a settlement between the city of Peoria, Illinois and the America Civil Liberties Union cause me to look up the origin of the name “Peoria.” It comes from a Native America Tribe. I wanted to check to see if the word originally meant “overreaction.”
Because the lawsuit was all about a mayor losing his cool over a joke. Seriously. In March 2014 a guy named Jonathan Daniel created a Twitter account called “@peoriamayor.” Daniel used the account to portray Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis as a boozing womanizer. I know. I have a hard time imagining a politician being a boozing womanizer too. But be that as it may, Mayor Ardis didn’t see the humor in the parody account. Not at all. And he had the resources to do more than stew about it.
Ardis ordered the Peoria police to do something to put an end to the account. The dutiful cops charged Daniel with violating a state law prohibiting the “false personation of public officials.” Using that charge, they raided Daniel’s home, seized a number of electronic devices and took him into custody. The Illinois State’s Attorney, apparently serving as the adult in the room, declined to prosecute. The State’s Attorney no doubt concluded the statute was designed to prevent people from impersonating police officers and other officials for some nefarious purpose – it wasn’t written to criminalize political satire. And even it was, the First Amendment would apply.
But that didn’t end things. Daniel, represented by the ACLU, sued Ardis and the city for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which the judge, apparently one more sensible person, denied. Thereafter, Peoria and Ardis agreed to pay $125,000 to settle the civil suit. The Peoria City Council also issued a policy directive recognizing that parody and satire are protected by the First Amendment. Better late than never I suppose.
I am consistently amazed at how people, including government officials, become so easily unhinged over snarky social media postings. And in all too many cases, they make it worse by taking some sort of legal action, which typically fails. I don’t know if Mayor Ardis is a drinker or a womanizer, but I do think he needs to work on his impulse control.