Jim Ardis for the Higgy

I nominate Jim Ardis for “The Higgy.” Jim Ardis has been the mayor of Peoria, IL since 2005.  A year ago Jon Daniel created a parody Twitter account, @peoriamayor, mocking the mayor with juvenile humor suggesting that the mayor had a penchant for drugs, liquor, and prostitutes.  The mayor didn’t appreciate the humor (or the 1st Amendment).  The Chicago Tribune describes what happened next:

Within two days of the account’s creation, the city manager sent an email to Sam Rivera, the city’s chief information officer, asking for his help in getting the account taken down.

“Someone is using the Mayor’s likeness in a twitter account,” Urich wrote in a March 11 e-mail. “It’s not him. @Peoriamayor. Can you work to get it shut down today?”

Less than an hour later, Urich turned to Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard and asked him to have a detective investigate the identity of the account’s creator. Settingsgaard quickly assigned the case to Det. James Feehan, a member of the department’s computer crimes unit. By 11 a.m. – about four hours after Urich first contacted the department – Feehan expressed doubts about whether any crime had been committed.

“I looked at the comments and photographs posted by the suspect. Nothing contained within amounts to criminal violations,” Feehan wrote in an email to his chief. “However, there are tweets posted by the individual which amount to defamation. Without a subpoena issued to Twitter to obtain the IP address of the account creator, there is not much else we can do. I did send Twitter the report of the impersonating account and requested it be removed asap.”

Settingsgaard passed the detective’s findings along to the mayor, though he doubted whether Ardis could meet the legal threshold for a defamation suit.

“This phony Twitter account does not constitute a criminal violation in that no threats are made,” the chief wrote. “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.”

Ardis was undeterred. He sent an email the next day to Urich, Rivera and Settingsgaard, urging them to get the account taken down.

“Any chance we can put a sense (of) urgency on this?” Ardis asked.

Urich echoed his boss’ wishes in a reply sent three minutes later.

“Quickly please,” he wrote.

Feehan and Rivera, however, already had separately reported the fake account to Twitter, which allows for parody accounts as long as they’re labeled as such.

In the meantime, Feehan continued to research the law regarding impersonation and came across a new state statute that prohibits people from falsely identifying themselves as public officials. Though it was only a misdemeanor crime, it would give the department the legal muscle it needed to force Twitter’s cooperation in shuttering the account.

If Ardis wanted to prosecute, they would proceed with taking a formal complaint.

“i absolutely will prosecute,” Ardis wrote in an email to Settingsgaard. “bring it on. thanks chief.”

Ardis’ decision allowed police to subpoena Twitter, which turned over the IP address used to access the account and temporarily suspended the account. With that information secured, the department subpoenaed Comcast for the account holder’s name and address.

On April 15 – more than three weeks after the @peoriamayor account was suspended – Peoria police raided the home where Daniel lived. Four officers tore the house apart, as records show they searched for any and all electronics capable of sending the offensive tweets. The search warrant also allowed officers to scour the house for drugs, as they believed “cocaine, heroin, (or) drug paraphernalia” could be present in the home because one of the tweets included a picture of a “white powdery substance” being cut by a razor blade.

In the end, police confiscated four computers, four iPhones, an iPad and two Xboxes belonging to several people who lived at the house. They also found a “broken black ashtray with green seedy substance” and a “large gold gift bag with five sandwich bags containing a green leafy substance,” according to police reports. Tests showed the seedy substance was marijuana, officials said.

Authorities charged Jacob Elliott, whose name was on the home’s Comcast account, with possession of marijuana. His case is pending.

Daniel, who was not home during the raid, showed up at the police station later that evening and declined to answer questions without a lawyer present. He later acknowledged he created the Twitter account, but he was never arrested….

Three days after the raid, with the public backlash gearing up, the would-be case against Daniel unraveled completely. In an email sent to Ardis and Urich entitled “Twitter problem,” Settingsgaard broke the news to his bosses.

“Det Feehan is going to review with (State’s Attorney Jerry) Brady on Monday but there may be an internet exception to the impersonating statute,” he wrote. “If it is exempt, everyone missed it from the investigators to the SAO (the state’s attorney’s office) and the judges.”

There are so many things wrong with this story that it’s hard to know where to begin.  You know what, I’m not even going to try to list what is wrong with what Ardis and other city employees did other than to emphasize that they ended up using a SWAT team to raid someone’s house over Constitutionally protected free speech on the pretext that it was a misdemeanor violation for impersonating a public official when it turns out that the statute actually exempts the internet from such violations (leaving aside the 1st Amendment stuff).

I think this qualifies Ardis for “The Higgy.”  As the award’s criteria state: “‘The Higgy’ will not identify the worst person in the world, just as ‘The Al’ does not recognize the best.  Instead, ‘The Higgy’ will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.”  Jim Ardis is not the worst person in the world.  I’m sure he loves his family and (in the spirit of Al Copeland) the O’Leary’s Restaurant he used to own may serve a delicious fried chicken (even if it is only as chicken tenders.)

Despite these possible positive qualities, Ardis is still a tyrant who chips away at our liberty by using the authority of the government to persecute people who offend him.  You might even call him a Petty Little Dictator.

The delicious justice is that Ardis’ thuggery has not been effective.  When he once was being mocked by a single, obscure parody account on Twitter, there are now more than a dozen.  And Jon Daniel has filed a civil suit seeking damages.

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