ACLU Sues Over Eavesdropping Law
CHICAGO - Responding to a series of incidents in which individuals in four counties in Illinois have been charged with violating Illinois' eavesdropping law for making audio recordings of public conversations with police, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has asked a federal court to rule that the First Amendment bans such prosecutions. The ACLU lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Chicago, argues that individuals (and organizations such as the ACLU) may make audio (and video) recordings of police who are performing their public duties in a public place and speaking in a voice loud enough to be heard by the unassisted human ear.
The case is of particular import because the law is being used to arrest and prosecute those who want to monitor police activity in order to deter or detect any police misconduct. In Champaign a few years ago, for example, a group of community activists attempting to document police practices in predominantly African American neighborhoods were charged with violating the Illinois eavesdropping law when they filmed and recorded police interactions with citizens in the public way. (The charges were dropped only after the installation of a new states attorney.) In Chicago, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez currently is prosecuting an individual for violating the eavesdropping statute by recording police officers.
Illinois' eavesdropping law criminalizes the recording of certain non-private conversations, one of a small handful of states that does so. Similar prosecutions have occurred in other states, including Massachusetts and Maryland. Yet even as the Illinois law criminalizes civilians who audio record police, the law allows police to audio record civilians during traffic stops and in other situations.
The ACLU recently felt the limitation of this law. The media reported that Chicago police were conducting random searches of bags and backpacks of individuals who were passing by Chicago beaches on the pathway that runs adjacent to the beach and Lake Shore Drive. When the ACLU investigated, it could not use widely available audio/video recording devices - like the smart phones carried by millions of Americans - to document police activity and conversations, because doing so would risk arrest or prosecution.
"There is a lot of talk about the need for more transparency in government - we should demand that transparency from the police," said Harvey Grossman, Legal Director for the ACLU of Illinois. "Organizations and individuals should not be threatened with prosecution and jail time simply for monitoring the activities of police in public, having conversations in a public place at normal volume of conversation."