Illinois Barred From Enforcing Police Eavesdropping Law

Citing First Amendment issues, a federal appeals court is barring Illinois from enforcing a law prohibiting the audio-recording of police officers.

The decision Tuesday by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes two weeks ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago that is likely to draw throngs of protesters May 20-21.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the 1961 eavesdropping law that makes it a felony to audio-record a conversation unless everybody in that conversation consents. Violators faced a maximum 15-year prison term if a police officer is recorded.

“The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests,” the Chicago-based appeals court wrote (.pdf).

The ACLU brought the case in 2010, arguing its staff had a First Amendment right to record police officers on the job. The case wasn’t merely theoretical — among those who have been prosecuted for recording conversations with police is Chicago artist Christopher Drew, who recorded an expected encounter with police over selling art in a public park without a permit. He then got hit with a felony eavesdropping charge.

“In order to make the rights of free expression and petition effective, individuals and organizations must be able to freely gather and record information about the conduct of government and their agents — especially the police,” Harvey Grossman, the ACLU’s legal director in Illinois, said in a statement. “The advent and widespread accessibility of new technologies make the recording and dissemination of pictures and sound inexpensive, efficient and easy to accomplish.”

A state Senate bill that allows police recording without consent is awaiting a House vote.

Photo: afsart/Flickr