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Peoria faces court of public opinion on First Amendment


The City of Peoria continues to feel the effects of a First Amendment backlash. That’s a week after the raid of a Peoria home where a parody twitter account about the mayor originated.  But is it a matter of free speech? Or is it a matter of false representation of the Peoria Mayor with intent to injure?

As of Tuesday’s Peoria City Council meeting the bulk of the comments on the matter went to what many are saying was an abuse of power by the Mayor. Peoria Public Radio’s Tanya Koonce reports the largely agreed upon point seems to be widespread embarrassment for the All American City:

At-Large Peoria Councilman Chuck Weaver raised the issue at the end of an already lengthy council meeting. He questioned why the search warrant started with looking for drugs, suggesting it was a reach from the actual intent of finding the person responsible for the @peoriamayor parody twitter account: 

“Somebody should have been saying ‘hold on guys, let’s do a gut check here.’ I want to understand what kept our staff. I mean it’s not my job to challenge the mayor on what he’s doing. That’s the electorate's job.  It’s my job to ask the staff why didn’t someone step up and say this looks like strike number three this path we’re going down here,” says Weaver. 

Weaver was referencing two other fairly recent matters of question regarding police and city business. Councilwoman Beth Akeson also referenced what she called a series of bad judgements. But says she’s still struggling with how this series of events escalated to the level it has:  

“And we are now the butt of the jokes. It’s been covered by every news station. It’s  now morphed into this affidavit: this copy of the warrants, it’s had 30-thousand downloads. That’s way beyond the 50 people who were reading the twitter,which by the way I will say it was pretty raunchy. but it is still free speech and I think we will discover that it is protected and it will cost the city a tremendous amount of money,” says Akeson.
Akeson says she is disappointed. She says the city has lost its credibility in the way it handles things.

“I do think it is somewhat ironic that tonight we celebrated Richard Pryor who really initiated the irreverent, completely crass kind of humor,” says Akeson.
The council members kept their comments largely limited to the city staff’s handling of the situation. But during the public comment period the grandmother of the only person who’s been arrested so far as a result of the raid called the event ridiculous.

Carolyn Elliott’s 36 year old grandson Jacob was arrested for marijuana possession. She spoke directly to the mayor, who’s a longtime friend. 

“I think we’re all hurting by this. And I think you need to do something about it. I don’t think you need to use your employees as weapons to get even with the citizens of this city. We have the right to stand up for what we believe in. We have the right to free speech in this country,” says Elliot.
Carolyn Elliott says she’s now being identified on Facebook as the grandmother of the busted grandson. At least one other person said outright the Mayor “screwed up.” 
But another took a look with a wider lens.  Jessica Benassi is a social media-based business owner in Peoria. She pointed to a what she considers the larger issue for Peoria. She calls it a PR problem: 

“Once this happened, kind of looking around and kind of realizing that our social media relations are seriously lacking. It’s sad actually. And you can not like social media but you can’t ignore that this is the way people communicate now. City officials should take control of their social media accounts, and I feel like if you had, this would not have happened,” says Benassi.
Benassi offered her assistance to the city on matters of social media image management. And it may be a worthwhile take away for city leaders. The city cut its public relations position, typically responsible for such external communications a few years ago working to right size and balance its budget.
But the current first amendment backlash is something Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis says will have to be worked out in the investigation process. 

“I don’t know where that process is going to go. But like the words that cannot be taken back, the investigation is going to run its course. It was started after an inquiry of mine as to whether what occurred was legal. The investigation was not initiated or directed by me and it will run its course without my interference," says Ardis. 
The Mayor says he made the inquiry because as a person he felt a victim to sexual doggerel and absolute filth related to the twitter account. He says perhaps he reacted as a man, a father and husband rather than as a public official with whom constituents might disagree. 

The 28-year old man responsible for the @Peoriamayor twitter account is Jon Daniel. So far no charges have been filed against him and police reportedly still have his phone where at least some of the tweets would have originated.