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Sept. 9 — The city of Peoria, Illinois approved a policy directive acknowledging that Illinois' statute on “false personation of public officials” doesn't criminalize online parodies or satires, a requirement of a legal settlement resolving claims over a fake Twitter account lampooning the town's mayor.
The Peoria City Council Sept. 8 formally approved the four-paragraph directive as required under a settlement with Jonathan Daniel, who was arrested last year after setting up a Twitter account that parodied Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. The council also approved a settlement of $125,000, payable to Daniel and his legal team, which included the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
The policy directive provides that while the statute criminalizes some acts of impersonation of public officials, acts of parody and satire are generally protected by the First Amendment. It also emphasizes that such protections extend to online speech.
“The First Amendment protects many forms of online speech, including Parody and Satire when the parody or satire is reasonably perceived,” the directive states. “These forms of speech are important to public debate and, as a result, they cannot alone be the basis of a criminal investigation, arrest, or prosecution.”
Most states have implemented false personation statutes to protect public officials against fraudulent conduct by individuals masquerading as police officers, elected officials and other public figures.
Daniel said he was pleased the so-called “Twittergate” controversy had been resolved.
“I am satisfied with the outcome in this case. I always thought that the Twitter account was a joke for me and for my friends,” Daniel said in a statement. “I never dreamed that it would result in my home being raided and me being placed under arrest.”
The controversy goes back to March 2014 when Daniel launched the Twitter account @peoriamayor. Daniel posted commentary and pictures that portrayed Ardis as a crude politician, who spends his free time drinking, using illegal drugs and cavorting with women.
Ardis, according to press accounts, was furious with the portrayal and ordered city executives and local law enforcement to take steps to halt the offending Twitter feed. The police department used the false personation law to subpoena Twitter and Comcast for Daniel's account information. Officers then raided Daniel's home, seized several electronic devices and took him into custody. Despite the show of force, the Illinois state's attorney declined to prosecute Daniel.
Two months after the raid, Daniel filed suit in federal court in Peoria. Daniel alleged Ardis and several city officials violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The parties eventually engaged in settlement discussions after the judge in the matter denied Peoria's motion to dismiss the action.
The City of Peoria acknowledged the settlement in a statement released Sept. 2, stressing it included no admission of liability or wrongful conduct.
“In fact, we believe strongly that the city would have ultimately won the case, but the reality is it would have cost the city several times the amount of the settlement in order to win in court, and as a result, settling early was the soundest fiscal strategy for the taxpayers,” the city said.
Jim Sotos, outside counsel for the city, told Bloomberg BNA that Peoria had credible legal grounds to investigate and detain Daniel under Illinois' false personation statute. The office of the state's attorney declined to prosecute Daniel, pointing to a potential Internet communications exception to the statute. “But if you look at the statute and you look at the conduct,” Sotos said, “there was definitely probable cause that there was a violation of the statute.”
Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois, called Peoria's conduct and its subsequent legal posturing “foolish” and insisted the city was forced to settle to avoid further embarrassment. He said the city had few real options after its motion to dismiss was rejected in federal court.
Regardless of the Illinois statute, Grossman said the U.S. Supreme Court has vigorously upheld individuals' free speech rights in situations involving parodies of public officials.
Grossman specifically pointed to the court's ruling in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), an 8-0 decision that found the Constitution's free-speech guarantee prohibited damages to public figures in speech involving parody or satire.
“This has been a big farce from beginning to end,” Grossman told Bloomberg BNA. “The issue here is whether you can criminalize protected speech that constitutes a parody. It's no different than the Falwell case or any of the cases in which the Supreme Court has looked at satire and parody and said it cannot be sanctioned or penalized. He would have had to be trying to defraud someone with his speech for this conduct to be criminal. So this was a fool's errand.”
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The settlement agreement can be found at
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