By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois’ eavesdropping law was never about privacy.
The law was created to protect public officials, police officers, elected representatives and the like from the public. But the Illinois Supreme Court protected the public from those officials this week in striking down the law.
The Supreme Court used its ruling in an eavesdropping case, People v Annabel Melongo, to end the statute Thursday.
“The statute as now written deems all conversations to be private and, thus, not subject to recording absent consent,” the court wrote in its opinion. “When that policy criminalizes a wide range of innocent conduct, however, it cannot be sustained.”
The court explained that Illinois’ eavesdropping law could make just about anyone with a cell phone and YouTube account a felon.
“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,” the ruling states. “None of these examples implicate privacy interests, yet the statute makes it a felony to audio record each one.”
Springfield attorney Don Craven said one case that previously lead to a broadening of the statute involved a man who was arrested and recorded the conversation of two officers on the ride to the police station.
“The criminal charges that have been brought against people for eavesdropping, I think, have almost exclusively involved citizens taping public officials doing official duties,” he said.
Melongo spent almost two years behind bars after she recorded phone calls with the Cook County court reporter’s office. In addition to recording the calls, Melongo also posted them on her blog.
The court also struck down a provision of the eavesdropping law that made it a crime to publish those recorded conversations.
Craven said citizens now have another tool to hold public officials accountable, but he expects state lawmakers to put some limits on public and private speech.
“Think of the stupid conversations you had with somebody in the vegetable section of the grocery store, and that got taped,” Craven said. “And used in whatever context, whoever has, wants to use it. It can go too far.”
Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected] and find him on Twitter @BenYount.