Jim Dey: Twitter caper brings embarrassment to Peoria

Jim Dey: Twitter caper brings embarrassment to Peoria

The mayor and police chief of Peoria enthusiastically assumed the roles of Larry and Moe, but Peoria County State's Attorney Jerry Brady wasn't as interested when it came to playing Curly.

So the prosecutor this week pulled the plug on the great Twitter caper that had Peoria atwitter the last two weeks, ultimately spreading beyond central Illinois to draw attention, ridicule and scorn from coast to coast.

The confrontation between an enraged Mayor Jim Ardis and one of his constituents, 37-year-old Jacob Elliott, raised First Amendment implications involving free speech. But in the end, prosecutor Brady brought the legal debate to an end by concluding that charging Elliott with impersonating a public official through the use of a parody Twitter account is not permitted under state law.

Brady said the law "doesn't include the use of electronic media."

But the controversy is far from over.

Mayor Ardis, who initiated the criminal investigation by complaining to Police Chief Steven Settingsgaard, defends his actions on the grounds that the @Peoriamayor parody of him as a drug-taking, stripper-loving Midwest version of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was "way over the line."

"It was filth, absolute filth," he said.

Ardis' critics, however, charged that what was over the line was the mayor's misuse of his municipal authority to initiate a police probe that ultimately provoked a multi-week investigation involving a handful of officers, a raid on Elliott's residence in which seven people were taken into custody and search warrants were signed by three different judges.

From the city's perspective, what's even more infuriating, even though entirely predictable, is that the Twitter controversy led to national attention for an online parody that had roughly 50 followers, as well as the creation of a series of new Twitter accounts lampooning both Mayor Ardis and Chief Settingsgaard.

"Disappointed to hear that my former friend Jerry Brady won't do what I tell him to do and is protecting a dirty little parodist," read new tweet from @notPeoriamayor.

That was one of the tamer Tweet Twitter critiques, which were heavy on personal insults, drug references and sexual innuendo. One new Twitter account portrayed Ardis with a Hitleresque moustache.

The controversy got its start in late February or early March when Elliott created the @peoriamayor account and began a series of tweets that, according to the search warrant complaint, "implied Mayor Ardis utilizes illegal drugs, associates with prostitutes and utilized offensive inappropriate language."

"2 (expletive deleted) things to get off my chest. 1. If you don't like Peoria. ...den leave. 2. Who stole my crack pipe?" read one tweet that Elliott sent.

When Ardis learned of the account on March 12, authorities say, he contacted Peoria police and said he "wished to pursue the matter."

That launched a lengthy investigation and a flurry of search warrants designed to identify the owner of the account and collect evidence against him. Peoria Judge Kirk Schoenbein, a former Champaign County public defender, signed the first warrant that demanded subscriber information from Twitter.

Two more search warrants were subsequently issued by Judge Lisa Wilson and Kim Kelly — one to Comcast and the other for Elliott's Peoria residence.

Detective Stevie Hughes justified the search warrant for Elliott's residence because "it is common for individuals involved in computer crimes to conceal evidence of the crime within their residence in an effort to thwart law enforcement officers ..."

There's confusion about the number of officers involved, but the Peoria Journal-Star reported that "up to seven" police officers raided Elliott's residence on April 15, ultimately taking seven people into custody for questioning.

"Fake Twitter account prompts real raid," a Journal-Star headline reported the next day.

Chief Settingsgaard disputed the assertion that it was obvious the Twitter account was a parody, even though it was registered as a parody, and legally protected free speech.

"... in fact it appears that someone went to great lengths to make it appear it was actually from the mayor," he told reporters.

Court documents indicate that police seized a wide variety of items from Elliott's residence that suggest the venue could play host to a slackers' convention.

Among the items seized were a "large glass bong," "white Xbox," "two glass pipes, 2 metal pipes," "large gold gift bag with 5 sandwich bags containing a green leafy substance," "sandwich bag containing a green leafy substance," "medium size yellow/orange/blue glass pipe," "various pieces of mail" addressed to eight different people, cellular phones and computer equipment.

Although some citizens took offense at the tweets and expressed support for the mayor, there was widespread condemnation of the city's response as a gross overreaction.

"The public officials involved will forgive those who suggest Americans have more to fear from an overreaching, all-powerful government than from a rogue Twitter account. ... Might a knock on the door and a 'knock it off' have sufficed?" the Journal-Star editorialized.

"Peoria Mayor vs. the First Amendment," read one blog post on the website of Georgetown University law Professor Jonathan Turley.

Elliott still faces the possibility of drug charges stemming from the seizure of marijuana from his residence. But since the search warrant was based on a false premise — an invalid allegation of impersonating a public official — the marijuana may not be admissible as evidence.

If it is not admissible, the legal fiasco will be complete. An angry mayor has embarrassed himself from coast to coast. The mayor's underlings already are defending themselves as mere bystanders who were just following orders. And those who like to create a parody of a parody have more ammunition.

"PARODY? Who knows anymore. My house, my rules. Check those civil liberties at the door and bow down to your leader. I like to raid houses and stashes," tweeted @peoriamayor14.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at (217) 351-5369.

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rsp wrote on April 28, 2014 at 10:04 am

You really have to wonder about those judges who signed off on the warrants, though. Didn't they even read them? Makes you wonder about every one they've signed if they don't question them.