The high stakes for short messages

Wednesday, May 7, 2014
The queen of England had a rough weekend. It rained relentlessly and her
youngest son Edward was stuck in the garden wearing an Easter Bunny suit.
I know this because I follow “Elizabeth Windsor,” a Twitter account that
shares Elizabeth’s personal musings. It’s informative, amusing – and
totally fabricated.
It’s one of hundreds of satirical Twitter accounts that adopt the persona
of a famous person. Twitter – which prohibits impersonation – has even
carved out an exception for what it calls “parody accounts.” That means
you’ll find not so authentic tweets from Betty White, Mark Zuckerberg and
even “Pharrell’s Hat.” There are raunchy tweets, ostensibly from Bill
Clinton, and life-affirming tweets, channeling Oprah.
And then there are the tweets that lead to the Peoria Police Department
raiding your home. On April 16, police seized electronics, phones and
computers from the home of Jon Daniel, allegedly the author of “@Peoria
Mayor,” a Twitter account bearing the photo of Mayor Jim Ardis and
featuring profane posts on drugs and sex.
Offended by the 50 or so tweets, the mayor sought search warrants to
identify the culprit. The process involved three judges and seven police
officers. Apparently there’s very little crime in Peoria.
The upshot: A roommate was charged with marijuana possession, but there’s
been no prosecution for the renegade tweets. And there shouldn’t be.
Parody is clearly protected as free speech.
Still, there is an Illinois law making it a crime to misrepresent
yourself as a public employee, regardless of intent. Cue the U.S. Supreme
Court, which in 2012 struck down the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that
punished those who claimed military honors they never earned.
“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal
offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible
whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects
about which false statements are punishable,” Justice Anthony Kennedy
wrote in the plurality opinion. If lying about the Medal of Honor isn’t
prosecutable, it’s a good bet you can pretend to be the mayor of Peoria
in a Twitter feed.
But what if you want to celebrate a long-dead film star? Surely you can
create a Twitter feed using the handle @JamesDean and post your thoughts
on why he was so iconic. Or so it seemed until this month.
Twitter allows users to use accounts with celebrity names as long as
there’s no misrepresentation or damage to the famous person.
But in February, CMG Worldwide, which licenses Dean’s image, sued Twitter
seeking suspension of the @JamesDean account, which streams reverential
salutes to the late actor. The company contends the account is a
misappropriation of publicity rights. Consider that. A company is arguing
that free speech doesn’t include the non-profit use of the name of a
public figure on a service invented 51 years after the actor’s death in
1955. This is new and unsettling territory, made more so by Twitter’s
recent suspension of @JamesDean without public explanation.
Both cases suggest a blind spot about emerging media, as though ideas are
less valuable in 140-character increments. No one would dream of raiding
the house of an author who wrote a book mocking a public figure or trying
to bar a magazine title chronicling a famous actor’s career. Tweets are
no less worthy of constitutional protection.

 (This column first appeared in USA TODAY.)

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