Illinois Eavesdropping Law Blocked; It “Likely Violates First Amendment,” Federal Appeals Court Rules

A 1961 Illinois eavesdropping law “likely violates the First Amendment’s free speech-speech and free-press guarantees,” a federal appeals court ruled.

The 69-page decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit blocks enforcement of an Illinois criminal law that made it a felony to make audio recordings of Chicago police without receiving their consent.

What prompted the lawsuit?

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Illinois branch filed a federal lawsuit in 2010 against the Cook County State’s Attorney, seeking a court declaration that the Illinois Eavesdropping Law was unconstitutional, and a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the law.

The ACLU’s ongoing police accountability program monitors police conduct at public events, and the group was concerned that simply making simultaneous video-audio recordings of law enforcement activities at such public events would lead to felony criminal charges and prison. Their concerns were real, the appellate court held, noting that “[t]he eavesdropping statute plainly prohibits the ACLU’s proposed audio recording,” and that the State’s Attorney conceded this.

Violation of the state’s 51-year-old law can lead to a lengthy prison sentence of four to fifteen years.

This state eavesdropping law was overly broad for more than 50 years.

Fortunately, the Internet age has brought with it a public thirst for renewed government accountability. Citizens seek to hold public officials and law enforcement accountable for their actions.  not only in the United States, but as the Arab Spring reminds us, around the world.  YouTube and Twitter play important roles letting the public learn about potentially unlawful, criminal, and deadly conduct by law enforcement whose overall responsibilities are to protect and serve people living in their communities.

Chicago has a special place in American history for holding police officers accountable for their conduct, particularly after the violence that accompanied protests there at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

The Seventh Circuit panel sent the case back to the trial court, and told it to “enter a preliminary injunction enjoining the State’s Attorney from applying the Illinois eavesdropping statute against the ACLU,” its employees, or agents who record audio of police communication while they are on the job, and working in public places.

You can read the court’s decision here:

Opinion Am. Civil Liberties Union of IL v. Alvarez