Peoria Mayor Continues To Defend Police Raid Of Twitter User's Home, Threatens To Sue For Defamation

by Tim Cushing
Jun. 17, 2014

Peoria mayor Jim Ardis has responded to the ACLU's announcement of its lawsuit against him (and several others) over the actions taken to shut down a parodic Twitter account. Ardis' "press conference" was really nothing more than him reading a prepared statement and refusing to answer any questions.

His statement shovels blame on the media, complains about having his "identity stolen" and goes long on pointing out that the Twitter account (or "site," as he prefers to call it) was not clearly marked as a parody at its inception. But the highlight by far is Mayor Ardis reading some of the tweets delivered by the account.

Ardis still seems to think he's completely right, but nearly everything he states is wrong.

First off, while the account wasn't marked as a parody when it first went live (March 9th), it had been by three days later (March 12th). Despite this, the mayor and the police continued their hunt of the account's owner. This hunt continued even after they managed to convince Twitter to suspend the account (March 20th).

Ardis repeats the claim that the account wasn't marked as a parody, as though that makes the entire month of police activity past the point of the account's shutdown (and six weeks past the point the account was marked as a parody by Jon Daniel, the account's owner) completely appropriate. Separately, while the lack of being marked as parody for three days may have violated Twitter's terms of service, it has no real bearing on the fact that it's protected speech. Mayor Ardis seems to think that unless something is marked as parody, it's not parody. But the point that many people were making, was that anyone reading the crazy statements on the Twitter feed would recognize it as obvious parody for being so extreme. In fact, having Mayor Ardis read out some of the tweets only seems to confirm the point. What he thinks is so conclusive as evidence that he's right, really only seems to prove the opposite: that the account was making statements so extreme and ridiculous that they were clearly parody, and not real.

Ardis also attacks the media for misrepresenting the facts. That's very hard to do when you're quoting police reports and police department/mayor's office emails directly. Since day one, the media has portrayed this event as Mayor Jim Ardis abusing his power to shut down a Twitter account he didn't like -- a portrayal that is borne out by the documents obtained from public records requests.

He also claims the media is being hypocritical by claiming the account was harmless while simultaneously refusing to print the "offensive" content of the tweets. This is his stupidest assertion. A Twitter account that did nothing but tweet out repeated profanities would be harmless while still being something most journalistic entities wouldn't print verbatim. Arbitrary standards for print are not legal standards for obscenity.

Either way, just because many people may find the account's tweets highly distasteful (and probably wouldn't retweet @grandma, etc.), it still doesn't make the speech less protected or Mayor Jim Ardis any more "right" about pursuing the person behind the account. Once the account was marked as parody, such that it complied with Twitter's terms of service, that should have been the end of it.

Justin Glawe, a Peoria native and friend of Jon Daniel who's been covering this case for Vice since the beginning, says that emails and comments made by an unnamed city official hint that Mayor Ardis may have believed the supposedly obscene account might be linked with the Peoria Journal Star.
[A]ccording to a source inside City Hall, the officials who aggressively pursued Daniel, the creator of the account, were also wrong in a much more mundane way: They thought I was behind @peoriamayor and assumed I worked for the local paper, the Journal Star...

In an email that was released because of a Freedom of Information Act request, Ardis asked his subordinates what “JS reporter” lived with Daniel, and a police official said he didn’t know. If the source in City Hall is correct, Ardis was convinced that reporter was me, and likely thought that by exposing me as the foul-mouthed fiend behind @peoriamayor he’d ruin my reputation as a journalist and that of the Journal Star in the process.
This adds a bit more background to the mayor's apparent disdain for the media. Glawe also points out that the braintrust behind the account shutdown not only seemed to have a poor grasp of the law (perhaps intentionally), but was also mystified by the technical aspects of dealing with an online social media platform.
At one point, some city officials and cops thought they could call Twitter to have @peoriamayor shut down, so it’s no surprise that they apparently couldn’t be bothered to google my name and find out who I was and whom I work for.
In related news, Peoria Police Chief Steve Stettingsgaard has stepped down to take a job with Caterpillar, Inc. While his entire tenure at the head of the PPD has been marked with controversy, there's no doubt this latest incident played a part in convincing him to exit the law enforcement business.

Bizarrely, Mayor Ardis hints he's looking at pursuing someone (Jon Daniel or possibly even Twitter itself) for "defamation," apparently forgetting the email conversation he had with Chief Stettingsgaard back on March 11th.
Mayor/Manager, I reviewed this matter with Detective Feehan. He is in the process of shutting down the account as you saw from my last email. This phony Twitter account does not constitute a criminal violation in that no threats are made. I'm not sure if it would support a civil suit for defamation of character. I'm not an expert in the civil arena but my recollection is that public officials have very limited protection from defamation.
If Ardis decides to pursue this, he'll just be adding to his list of highly-public debacles. His defensive press conference indicates he's unable and unwilling to learn from his mistakes. There's no case to be made here, especially if Ardis decides to go after Twitter itself for the actions of one of its users. But it appears Ardis has dignity to burn, even if most of it is riddled with self-inflicted wounds.

Jim Ardis Statement (PDF)

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