Blissfully unaware of the Streisand Effect, A thin-skinned Illinois mayor chose to sic his city’s police force on some local citizens last week over a parody account that poked fun at him on Twitter. The mayor was apparently upset that someone had created what was obviously a fake twitter persona, @Peoriamayor, and was tweeting about drug use and infidelity, and otherwise making stupid comments that anyone with an ounce of common sense would recognize as political satire. The mayor himself reportedly contacted his chief of police to report the situation, and, as you might expect, the chief was convinced that a crime had occurred.
Despite the the fact that the account’s creator had added a statement indicating the account was satirical, the chief reportedly said, “I don’t agree it was obvious [that the account was fake], and in fact it appears that someone went to great lengths to make it appear it was actually from the mayor.” A warrant was requested, a judge signed off on it, and a raid of the account creator’s home ensued. Three people were taken into custody, and a small quantity of marijuana was found at the house.
Charges of impersonating a public official are pending.
In the wake of all this, a hilarious stream of fake Twitter accounts has been created, including @NotPeoriaMayor:
Aside from the First Amendment implications (satire is generally considered protected speech)–and the fact that Peoria’s mayor has made himself look like a petty, vindictive, bully (which he may well be)–the police have been drawn into what is arguably a political matter. The mayor had other remedies he could have pursued, including just ignoring the inanity of it all, but instead chose to bring the power of the state, via law enforcement, against his political enemies. That’s hardly the ethos of a free and vibrant democracy.
Even outrageous speech by Larry Flynt, the pornography purveyor who famously lampooned Jerry Falwell by distributing a fake liquor ad implying that Falwell had a sexual encounter with his own mother in an outhouse, was deemed to be protected.
Short of libel or slander, parodies of public figures have long enjoyed free-speech protections. According to the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University:
Satire is a centuries-old type of literature that uses humor and imitation to attack and ridicule individuals’ moral and character flaws, such as vice, unfairness, stupidity or vanity. A parody is also an attack on folly, but it takes the form of a contemptuous imitation of an existing artistic production — usually a serious work of literature, music, artwork or film — for satirical or humorous purposes. Satire and parody have served for generations as a means of criticizing public figures, exposing political injustice, communicating social ideologies, and pursuing such artistic ends as literary criticism. Satirists usually find themselves subjected in turn to criticism, contempt and, sometimes, lawsuits. The First Amendment protects satire and parody as a form of free speech and expression.
And, according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Hustler Magazine versus Falwell, Justice Rehnquist wrote that:
The sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office or those public figures who are “intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large.” Associated Press v. Walker, decided with Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 164 (1967) (Warren, C. J., concurring in result). Justice Frankfurter put it succinctly in Baumgartner v. United States, 322 U.S. 665, 673 -674 (1944), when he said that “[o]ne of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures.” Such criticism, inevitably, will not always be reasoned or moderate; public figures as well as public officials will be subject to “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks,” New York Times, supra, at 270. “[T]he candidate who vaunts his spotless record and sterling integrity cannot convincingly cry `Foul!’ when an opponent or an industrious reporter attempts [485 U.S. 46, 52] to demonstrate the contrary.” Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy, 401 U.S. 265, 274 (1971).
Public officials definitely don’t have to like what other people say, but they have to allow it. When the government starts picking and choosing what speech it finds acceptable, and what it doesn’t, and then using force to squelch what it deems unacceptable, we’ve got a start on becoming just a more well-resourced version of North Korea.
Update (4/21/14): Popehat posted a very funny (and satirical, just to be clear) guest post from the Honorable Jim Ardis, mayor of Peoria, Illinois, that I just had to share.
Update (4/23/14): Well, the mayor came out swinging at a city council meeting Tuesday evening, accusing the press of “spinning” their coverage of what he insists was a legitimate attempt to “protect his identity.” Meanwhile, members of the city council questioned the mayor’s actions and bemoaned the negative national attention they’ve brought to Peoria. You just can’t make this stuff up.