The war against freedom of speech in social media isn’t limited to China and Turkey. Cops in the city of Peoria, Illinois have brazenly seized computers and cell phones from a home suspected of being connected to a satirical Twitter account that mocked the city’s mayor, Jim Ardis.
Three people were taken into custody at the scene and two more residents of the home were grabbed from their place of employment. One resident, Jacob L. Elliot was charged with an unrelated crime of possessing 30 to 500 grams of marijuana, presumably found during the cop’s raid.
The Twitter account that caused the raid was @Peoriamayor. It purported to be the mayor and mentioned excessive drug use and sex, it also linked the mayor to Toronto Mayor Rob “I smoke crack” Ford. The account was inexplicitly suspended by Twitter, even though the creator updated it to include disclaimers stating that the account was a parody. The account had roughly 50 followers at the time of its suspension and reportedly about as many tweets.
Silencing the account was apparently not strong enough action for Jim Ardis. The Police say that they want to charge whoever is ran the parody account with impersonating a public official. A law normally used for creeps who drive around in police uniforms or people trying to get a free meal by saying that they are the city comptroller, not someone engaged in social commentary.
Police did obtain a warrant from a judge in order to execute the raid. They raided the house in plain clothes and according to members of the household, searched the entire house. Since then, a new account has appeared @NotPeoriamayor, it already has more than double the Twitter followers of the original Twitter account.
Before I go on, I think its important to emphasize exactly what went on here. Someone created a satirical account on Twitter about the Peoria Mayor. After complaints, the account stated that it was satirical. Still, someone else complained (presumably someone from the mayor’s office) and got the account shut down. Then, despite the artistic outlet being severed, the police force loyal to the mayor raided a house armed and in plain clothes. They then took five people into custody and charged one of them with an unrelated crime, and plan to press more charges using a law never intended to be used on members of the media.
Welcome to the police state.
If the Mayor felt that the Twitter account was engaging in libel, then there is a legal process that goes along with charging the account with that. But those charges aren’t likely to stick given the admitted satirical nature of the Twitter account. Instead they used the brutish nature of their police force to intimidate their citizens and proved that if you are going to criticize a public official in Peoria, you better not be doing anything else illegal, they will find you.
It is also important to note, that there are very clear examples of similar types of Satire existing in American media. Hunter S. Thompson, considered by many to be the best American writer of his time, famously “reported” on then presidential candidate Edmund Muskie’s “frequent Ibogaine use.” Like this Twitter account, the piece was satirical. Unlike this Twitter account, a lot more than fifty people took it seriously when it ran in the Rolling Stone. Thompson eventually somewhat conceded that he went to far with it (if not in words then when he slightly modified it before it appeared in Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72) but the point is he didn’t have his house raided, they didn’t seize his typewriter or arrest him at his place of employment.
You may argue that Thompson was a legitimate journalist while the owner of the Twitter account holds no credentials. But the term the “press” as defined in the constitution didn’t mean someone dignified as “legitimate” by the government or society, it meant anyone who had the ability to own a printing press. The internet has given all of us our own printing press. Everyone is a member of the press now.
Too bad no one in government seems to notice. Or that this isn’t the Soviet Union circa 1953.
[Photo Credit: @NotPeoriaMayor]