Good riddance to eavesdrop law

Good riddance to eavesdrop law

Illinois' disgraceful and dangerous eavesdropping statute has gone the way of the dodo bird.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

That is the most generous interpretation that can be given to the demise of a state eavesdropping statute that was used to harass honest citizens who ran afoul of aggrieved public employees. The Illinois Supreme Court last week — in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Rita Garman — struck down Illinois' eavesdropping law because it was so overly broad that it violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

Drafted to prohibit one party to a telephone conversation from recording the conversation without the consent of the other party, the law mostly was used by prosecutors to criminalize a variety of public activities, including citizens who recorded interactions with police on their smart phones.

It's important to understand that the high court did not say that people should be free to record private telephone conversations without the knowledge and consent of the other party. It simply said that the statute that banned that behavior is overly broad and must be more narrowly tailored to address legitimate privacy interests.

Now members of the Illinois House and Senate — many of whom are as ignorant as their forebears on First Amendment issues — must come up with a replacement statute.

Some people, motivated by misplaced privacy concerns, may at first blush recoil from the high court's decision. But there is no legitimate reason for concern.

The old law was aimed at protecting private conversations. But how did that translate in the real world?

Because it was so sloppily drafted, the eavesdropping statute made it illegal for cameras to record all manners of routine, if somewhat boisterous or contentious, conduct that is a part of daily life. Justice Garman wrote that the eavesdropping law "criminalizes a wide range of innocent conduct."

"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 implicates privacy interests, yet the statute makes it a felony to audio record each one," Garman wrote.

It's no secret that controversy surrounding the eavesdropping statute has become more pronounced with the advent of smart phones and smaller cameras now widely available. It is the use of this type of equipment combined with an overly broad statute that brought public officials sensitive to being recorded into conflict with citizens intent on documenting events.

The statute became a tool by which public officials sought to intimidate or punish those who recorded public behavior. It's a clear example of how so-called public servants can morph into public oppressors.

In one of the cases the high court resolved, a citizen who recorded conversations with a public employee over disputed courtroom transcripts was charged with a felony offense. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office prosecuted the case, was at her most vindictive in seeking to use the eavesdropping statute as a club. After charging Annabel Melongo, prosecutors sought and received a six-figure bond — clearly excessive given the facts of the case — that Melongo could not meet. She spent two years in the Cook County jail waiting for the case to come to trial.

The judge in Melongo's case ultimately found the eavesdropping law unconstitutional, the same finding a federal appeals court made in 2012. Nonetheless, Alvarez, who is no stranger to the abuse of power, appealed the state judge's ruling, losing again before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Alvarez's conduct was no accident. Her conduct is identical to those of prosecutors across the country who continue to pursue — and ultimately lose — prosecutions related to the recording of public events by private citizens.

Now at least Illinois has seen the last of this kind of abuse of authority by police and prosecutors who should have known better. It's about time.

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