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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has submitted testimony to the Illinois General Assembly in support of an amendment to the state eavesdropping law, which would create an exemption from criminal prosecution for the “[r]ecording of a peace officer who is performing a public duty in a public place and speaking at a volume audible to the unassisted human ear.”
House Bill 3944 is an important step in reforming an overly broad law that criminalizes a critically important aspect of the newsgathering process and infringes on cherished First Amendment freedoms.
The Illinois Eavesdropping Act is the only law of its type in the United States. The excessively broad law criminalizes the use of an audio-recording device “for the purpose of hearing or recording all or any part of any conversation … unless [done] with the consent of all of the parties to such conversation or electronic communication ….” The law defines “conversation” as “any oral communication between 2 [sic] or more persons regardless of whether one or more of the parties intended their communication to be of a private nature under circumstances justifying that expectation.”
While several states prohibit recording of telephone conversations unless both parties know a recording is being made or ban recording in clearly private settings, the Illinois law goes much further. “The practical effect of this excessively broad law is to make it a crime for journalists and citizens alike to audio-record all interactions with police officers, even those in which either the police or the citizen may be engaging in misconduct,” the Reporters Committee wrote.
“The Illinois statute is astonishingly broad,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “The G-8 Conference is scheduled for Chicago in May, and one can imagine a situation where thousands of foreign journalists in town to cover the conference could be arrested merely for reporting on police activity in a public park. Is this the message the state of Illinois want to send about a free press to the rest of the world?”
The law is under direct constitutional challenge in two pending cases. ACLU of Illinois v. Alvarez is under advisement in the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Illinois v. Allison is before the Supreme Court of Illinois, awaiting oral argument later this year. The Reporters Committee has filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the ACLU in Alvarez.
The Chief Sponsor of H.B. 3944 is Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been joined by sixteen co-sponsors. The bill is currently before the Civil Law Committee of the house of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee.
The Reporters Committee testimony is posted online.
About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.