The Illinois Supreme Court this morning struck down the state’s eavesdropping law, one of the strictest in the nation that made audio recording of any person, even in public, illegal unless that person gave their consent.
The high court’s ruling comes two years after a federal appeals court in Chicago found unconstitutional the law’s ban on recording police officers in public. The court prohibited enforcement of that part of the law shortly before Chicago hosted the NATO summit.
During arguments before the state Supreme Court in January, Justice Robert Thomas referred to the “overbreadth of the statute” and said it seemed to make it a crime to record a “shouting match at a baseball game” and post it on YouTube.
* Via the American Civil LIberties Union of Illinois, here’s a press release sent out by Ms. Melongo’s lawyers….
In a ruling that protects citizen’s ability to gather and disseminate information about governmental activity, the Illinois Supreme Court held today that the state’s Eavesdropping Statute is unconstitutional. In two unanimous decisions, People v. Melongo and People v. Clark, the Supreme Court held that the controversial statute violated the free speech and due process protections of the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions.
The Illinois Eavesdropping Statute was enacted to protect private conversations from being recorded without consent. But the Supreme Court held that the statute, as written, was far too broad, making criminals out of people who recorded conversations that were undeniably public, or that nobody intended to be private. For example, the statute made it a felony for someone to record on his iPhone a shouting match between two passionate fans in the stands at a baseball game, or to record police officers interacting with protesters in a public plaza in front of City Hall and posting the exchange on YouTube.
The Supreme Court also held that the statute infringed on the free speech rights of citizens by making it a crime to audio record conversations with public officials, who have no privacy interest in the statements they make while interacting with the public, including recording police officers making public arrests. In fact, as it turns out, the only prosecutions ever brought under the statute charged citizens with felonies for recording and reporting on conversations with police officers or public officials performing their official duties, in violation of their First Amendment rights.
The case against Annabel Melongo was one such example. Ms. Melongo was charged in Cook County in 2009 with six counts of felony eavesdropping. Her crime was recording telephone conversations she had with a representative of the Circuit Court of Cook County, who was explaining to her the official procedure for correcting an inaccurate court transcript, and then posting those conversations on a blog aimed at exposing public corruption. Ms. Melongo served almost two years in jail before a Circuit Court judge concluded that it was unconstitutional to charge her with eavesdropping.
The State’s Attorney appealed the trial court’s decision directly to the Illinois Supreme Court, arguing that the broad statute was properly applied to her conduct. The Supreme Court disagreed, writing that the Eavesdropping Statute “burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to serve a legitimate interest in protecting conversational privacy” and is thus “unconstitutional on its face.”
The Court went on: “The statute criminalizes the recording of conversations that cannot be deemed private: a loud argument on the street, a political debate on a college quad, yelling fans at an athletic event, or any conversation loud enough that the speakers should expect to be heard by others. None of these examples implicate privacy interests, yet the statute makes it a felony to record each one. Judged in terms of the legislative purpose of protecting conversational privacy, the statute’s scope is simply too broad.” [Emphasis added.]
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, overall, we have a very good Supreme Court in this state. The statute in question is ridiculously unconstitutional. And the fact that Ms. Melongo served almost two years behind bars because of an over-zealous Cook County State’s Attorney is totally unconscionable. And State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s appeal defied all standards of decency and common sense.
The decisions are here and here.