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Parody, especially of public figures, is protected speech under the First Amendment. Parody Twitter accounts are a fact of life, as ubiquitous on that platform as fake news is on Facebook. There are over 50 parody Donald Trump accounts alone. While most people don't take parody accounts too seriously, most people are not the Miami Beach Police Department.
Officers from that department arrested Ernesto Orsetti after they discovered he was behind a parody Twitter account impersonating MBPD spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez. Orsetti was charged with impersonating a police officer, and could be looking at 5 years in prison if convicted.
"The behavior here was outrageous," MBPD Chief Dan Oates said, according to the Miami Times. "It threatened to damage the reputation of our superb Public Information Officer, as well as the Miami Beach Police Department brand. We simply can't tolerate such an impersonation, and I am glad Mr. Orsetti will now be held accountable." But that officer whose reputation was potentially damaged didn't seem too troubled by the parody account, tweeting: "They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Just shows the amount of 'free' time folks have."
The arrest report claims Orsetti "communicated with local media, elected officials, and the community," but that's difficult to verify since Twitter had already suspended the parody account prior to Orsetti's arrest. And without those tweets, it's also hard to see whether they amount to criminal conduct under Florida's impersonation statute, which reads:
A person who deliberately impersonates or falsely acts as a public officer or employee in connection with or relating to any legal process affecting persons and property, or otherwise takes any action under color of law against persons or property, commits a felony of the third degree.
The question of the legality of public official parody accounts has come up before. In 2014, Peoria, Illinois police arrested Jacob Elliott, who was posing as the city's mayor on Twitter. Charges were dropped, and Elliott then sued the city for violating his free speech rights and Peoria paid him $125,000 to settle the suit.
There's a good chance Miami's attempted prosecution of Orsetti will follow the same path.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.