The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is representing a 29-year-old man suing the City of Peoria, Mayor Jim Ardis and several other officials for their role in transforming his Twitter parody of the mayor into a police matter, leading to a raid on a home, the seizing of personal property, and his arrest and detention.
Jon Daniel is asking a federal court in Peoria to hold the mayor, the city manager, the former police chief, and other city officials accountable for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights by responding to a parody account spoofing the mayor by launching a manhunt for the account's author.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court this week, charges that Ardis, along with Peoria's city manager, the assistant city manager, the chief information officer, former chief of police, and two police detectives violated Daniel's First and Fourth Amendment rights by launching a police investigation based on his speech and then searching his home as part of that investigation.
The events that have been dubbed "Twittergate" began on March 9, when Daniel created a Twitter account @peoriamayor. He created the account mainly for his own entertainment and the amusement of his friends, whom he thought would be surprised to receive a re-tweet from the @peoriamayor account.
Over the next 10 days, Daniel retweeted and favorited posts from friends, and also issued a series of tweets from the account — hich he clearly labeled parody several days after it was created — that used informal language, slang and expletives.
"The joke of the account was to have my fictional mayor saying things that no one would possibly think that Mayor Jim Ardis would say," said Daniel in a news release from the ACLU. "If the mayor was concerned, all he had to do was tell the public that his was not his account and not his words, rather than involving the police."
The ACLU says within hours of finding out about the existence of the @peoriamayor account, Ardis directed the city manager to involve the police department in order to find the author of the account. Ardis was personally offended by the Twitter account. On March 20, city officials convinced Twitter to suspend the account, threatening litigation and other sanctions.
Even after the account had been suspended and no new messages were sent, the police involvement continued. On April 15, Peoria police executed a search warrant on Daniel's home. While Daniel was at work when the police arrived, his roommates and other friends were present at the home. The police searched the home, took a number of computers, telephones and other electronic devices into their possession, including Daniel's computer, as well as a laptop and Xbox.
Shortly thereafter, a police detective phoned Daniel and told him that the police needed to speak with him. The police went Daniel's workplace, searched him, placed him in a police car and drove him to the police station. There, he was required to empty his pockets, was read his rights and placed in an interrogation room, according to the ACLU. When Daniel demanded to see a lawyer, he was released, but the police confiscated his phone.
"When I got home, I discovered that my room had been searched — there were drawers open, things were out of place and a box of pictures were dumped out on the floor, a box that included important pictures of my children and my life," Daniel stated. "The next few days were like a blur for me. I was very scared and helpless. I could not sleep. I had a sense of impending doom."
Later, the state's attorney announced that Daniel would not be charged with a crime.
"Political parody is a great tradition in the United States — from Thomas Nast to Jon Stewart," said Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois and the lead attorney representing Daniel. "In a number of public statements, the Mayor and Peoria officials have been unapologetic about their activities," added Grossman. "The only way to hold these government officials accountable is to have a federal court rule that their actions violated the fundamental constitutional rights of our client."