As you may have heard by now, Peoria, Ill., Mayor Jim Ardis doesn’t like parody. Earlier this year, a barely-noticed Twitter account purporting to be Ardis started putting out tweets with references to sex, drugs, corruption and other wickedness. With apparently little understanding of how the Internet works, Ardis persuaded Twitter to reveal the home from which the tweets were coming, after which a group of Peoria’s finest set out to raid the place. The story made national news.
Unless the culprits were attempting to monetize the account in some way, it’s hard to envision any scenario in which impersonating someone on Twitter should be a criminal affair. Civil, perhaps — provided that a reasonable person could misconstrue the tweets as actually having come from Jim Ardis. That’s what Peoria Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard was getting at when he said, “I don’t agree it was obvious [that it was a satirical account], and in fact it appears that someone went to great lengths to make it appear it was actually from the mayor.”
Again, even here, I don’t see how this could rise to the level of a criminal offense. Or at least it shouldn’t. But even if it did, Ardis has put himself in an odd position. He’s basically arguing that someone could have stumbled upon a Twitter purporting to be him posting about sexual conquests, drug use and corruption and reasonably have believed said account was run by Ardis himself. One can’t help but wonder if Ardis has fully considered the ramifications of that argument.
In any case, Ardis is well on his way to a permanent place in the annals of First Amendment infamy. Instead of getting mocked by an obscure Twitter account with fewer than 100 followers over things he (presumably) hasn’t said or done, Ardis is now getting ridiculed all over America for the things he has. Instead of one Jim Ardis parody Twitter account, there are now dozens, most with several times as many followers as the original. There are stoner Jim Ardises, Jim Ardises with Hitler mustaches and Jim Ardis “guest posts” at popular blogs. Ardis apparently didn’t learn from Jerry Falwell. So now he gets to learn from Barbara Streisand.
Except Jim Ardis doesn’t seem to have learned much at all. From the Peoria Journal Star:
Jim Ardis said he doesn’t regret his attempt to protect his identity. Some City Council members and others regret Peoria has become a nationwide punchline. . . .
He said the profane tweets, on a Twitter account created by Peoria resident Jon Daniel, could not be tolerated. That was true even after the account was re-labeled as a parody and was deactivated.
“I still maintain my right to protect my identity is my right,” Ardis said in an interview with the Journal Star before the council meeting.
“Are there no boundaries on what you can say, when you can say it, who you can say it to?” Ardis said. “You can’t say (those tweets) on behalf of me. That’s my problem. This guy took away my freedom of speech.”
Set aside the breathtaking narcissism and note here how Ardis sees “freedom of speech.” If a guy who mocks a locally powerful political figure on the Internet is violating said locally powerful political figure’s First Amendment rights, then when the same political figure sends armed agents to raid the home of his parodist in order to silence him, he’s really just promoting free speech. Censoring your critics with state force = promoting free speech. How delightfully Orwellian.
In the end, Ardis not only amplified the account’s unflattering portrait of him, he also provided some evidence for its accuracy. He also reaffirmed why it’s critical that we retain the freedom to mock and ridicule self-absorbed public official who abuse their power.
Here’s my advice for Jim Ardis: If you don’t like being parodied, stop being so damned parodiable.