The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Local News

December 26, 2012

No. 6 - Twitter battle hits home

Top 10 stories of 2012

HUNTSVILLE — City Council and Walker County’s district attorney draw national attention to Huntsville in 2012 with a criminal investigation into the First Amendment protected Twitter accounts of council critics.

Walker County District Attorney David Weeks said in October that City Council members, including at-large member Keith Olson, then in a fight for his council seat with student Kendall Scudder, and other council members lodged a complaint with his office about fake Twitter accounts poking fun at them through political satire.

The holders of the accounts are anonymous and most accounts are labeled as fake. The content of the anonymous tweets range from commentary on council decisions to personal attacks on council members and their family members.

Mock tweeters include one councilman’s moustache publishing zingers that include, “(Councilman) Keith (Olson) likes to abuse his powers like I like to abuse his face.” Another from the handle Laughable Loll cracked, “I shined my head extra special for tonight so the camera would reflect off of it.”

Weeks turned the matter over to the Texas Rangers to see if tweets from the fake accounts violated the state’s harassment laws. But Weeks acknowledged to The Item that he was unsure whether the fake Twitter accounts were illegal and said he wanted to avoid the appearance of bias since the investigation concerned local election officials.

“Since the allegations involve City Council, I did not want to put (the Huntsville Police Department) in the crosshairs by having them conduct the investigation. It is a political matter, so I felt the need to go outside and get an agency to investigate that does not have any local ties, which is why I did not take it to the sheriff’s office,” Weeks said in October. “At this point it’s a little early to say if there’s any illegal activity. With this situation, you have to be careful because of the free speech rights.”

A spokesman for the Texas Rangers told the Associated Press in October that the Rangers, who work with district attorneys who request their assistance, had devoted little time to the investigation.

“The amount of time spent on this inquiry is a matter of hours so far,” spokesman Tom Vinger wrote in an email to the AP.

But law experts said the investigation didn’t even warrant that much time.

David Anderson, a law professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Texas at Austin, said neither prosecutors nor the Rangers have “any business” investigating tweets if the content is simply parody or satire. He said that even a tweet implying that a council member committed domestic abuse — as one council member claims — would be a libel matter taken up in a civil lawsuit, not in criminal court.

“It’s ridiculous,” Anderson said.

Only Olson has acknowledged having complained with Weeks about the accounts, though others said they were offended by tweets that targeted them.

“I think they’re an immature and immoral thing to do...but I don’t know what you can do about them,” said mayor pro tem Don Johnson, who defeated former FBI agent Joe Rodriquez in the November election.  “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”

Olson said he considers the fake tweets to be a throwback to the negative politics of the past.

“I think it’s a regression to where our city is going. Our city is going in a positive direction, and I think this is a regression. I’m disappointed in it,” he said. “I think they are tasteless, they show poor judgment and poor character. (But) I can’t say whether they’re illegal.”

Yet Texas Ranger Ron Duff of Livingston threatened Katie Newman, who admitted running a fake Twitter account targeting council member James Fitch, with a grand jury indictment on charges of “Internet impersonation.”

“Every account has ‘fake’ or ‘phony’ or ‘faux’ in it, and some of the handles are so outrageous that the account could not be perceived as anything but political satire. If the grand jury is going to indict me for something like this, they need to indict Tina Fey for making millions impersonating (former vice presidential candidate) Sarah Palin. Political satire has been going on for hundreds of years, and with modern technology and social networking there’s just new and creative ways to do it,” Newman said in October.

Fitch, who is also deputy chief of the University Police Department at SHSU, said he was not offended by the fake accounts and viewed them as part of being an elected official and a public figure.

“There’s got to be a certain amount of freedom of speech...I knew from the get-go that they were fake,” Fitch said of the accounts. “As much as I like to be a private person, as soon as I signed up for council I knew my business was going to be public.”

Since October, the Walker County District Attorney’s Office has been entrenched in a contentious capital murder trial and has not responded to questions about the fake Twitter account investigation and the matter has not gone before a grand jury.

News outlets across the nation published stories in print and online about Huntsville’s Twitter account investigation, which the Associated Press also covered and which drew comment from media such as Texas Monthly.

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