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Reeder: State’s high court erases eavesdropping law

Published: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 11:38 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 10, 2014 8:45 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Supreme Court hit the erase button last week on the state’s eavesdropping law.

It was a smart decision on a very bad law.

Millions of Illinoisans now carry cellphones that can be whipped out at a moment’s notice to record just about anything. It’s a world apart from when the state passed its eavesdropping law in 1965.

Back then, tape recorders were about as big as a shoebox and not readily used by the public.

The ubiquitous nature of recording devices today has landed some folks in trouble when they have taken to recording government officials.

In one case, a woman recorded three telephone conversations with a courthouse supervisor about getting a court transcript corrected. The supervisor apparently was none too happy when the woman posted the conversations on the Internet. And she was prosecuted.

Others have been prosecuted when they have recorded their public interactions with police officers.

And in a Kane County case, a man was prosecuted for recording a conversation between himself, an attorney and a judge.

What do all of these cases have in common?

People in power who don’t want the public to actually hear what they said.

The ubiquity of digital recording devices these days should make government more transparent and more accountable. But not everyone sees it that way.

Fortunately, the state Supreme Court does.

The high court rightly ruled the state’s eavesdropping law is unconstitutional.

If a police officer isn’t saying anything inappropriate in an interaction with a citizen, she should welcome being recorded – it just verifies she is doing a good job.

The same goes for judges, politicians and other government functionaries.

Why not allow ordinary citizens to record their interactions with such people?

Here’s what Chief Justice Rita Garman had to say in her written opinion: “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 audio record each one.”

In the Kane County opinion, also written by Garman, she said a “person may write down what we say and publish it, and this is not a violation of the eavesdropping statute. Yet if that same person records our words with an audio recording device, even if it is not published in any way, a criminal act has been committed.”

Garman failed to see the distinction between the two.

Nor should she.

It’s not uncommon for politicians to deny saying something stupid that a journalist has quoted them saying.

But the wonderful thing about the Internet is that the reporter can simply post the audio recording online for the public to discern whether the quotes were accurate.

The public should feel empowered by this.

So how on earth did Illinois become one of only a dozen or so states with a law like this on the books?

Well, like so much in Springfield, it began in scandal.

Back in 1965, lobbyists were secretly recorded talking about which legislators were on the take.

Embarrassed lawmakers responded to the scandal by making it illegal to secretly tape conversations without a court order, the late Bill O’Connell, a retired statehouse reporter for the Peoria Journal Star, told me several years ago.

So the impetus behind the law was to cover up official skullduggery and make Illinois lawmakers who might have been on the take sleep a little better at night. That’s a bad law grounded in official deception. It’s time for Illinois to erase this bad policy and allow folks to just press record.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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