Police do not intend to enforce Illinois eavesdropping law during NATO summit

Rachel Bunn | Newsgathering | News | April 30, 2012

Journalists opposing the controversial Illinois eavesdropping statute expressed relief when a Chicago official announced that police do not plan to enforce the law when the city hosts the NATO summit in May. A state representative also introduced a bill last week to make it legal to audio record police officers in public.

The Illinois eavesdropping law – one of the strictest in the nation – makes it a felony to audio record a conversation without the consent of all parties, regardless of whether the recording is made visibly or secretly, and whether the conversation was public or private.

Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the City of Chicago, said the law would be difficult to enforce during the NATO summit and that the uncertainty of the law’s future led to the decision. The eavesdropping law has been ruled unconstitutional by two Illinois trial judges. The law is also being reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.).

Illinois state Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) said the impending summit made the need for reform “more pressing.”

“I would say it is a smart decision [for the Chicago police] not to enforce the law at the NATO summit,” she said.

Nekritz's bill, which she filed Friday, would allow citizens to audio record police in public. She sponsored a similar bill that failed to pass in the Illinois General Assembly in March.

Josh Sharp, director of governmental relations at the Illinois Press Association, said Patton's announcement was "great news."

However, journalists attending the summit should still be cautious, he said, warning them to “tread lightly” when it comes to recording police. “We hope that by (the NATO summit) May 21, we no longer have this law on the books,” Sharp said.

The Illinois eavesdropping law has been under scrutiny in the year leading up to the NATO summit. In addition to being ruled unconstitutional, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said at a panel discussion in January that he was in favor of audio and video recording of police, stating “[t]here’s no arguments when you can look at a videotape and see what happened,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The law has not been reviewed by the Illinois Supreme Court, and the Seventh Circuit's decision has not been released, so there remains no definitive ruling from a court that would apply statewide.

“It strikes at the basic heart of what journalists do,” Sharp said. “One of the basic functions of journalism is to cover the government. This law is a huge block to that.”

Last week, the police department received training to address concerns regarding media coverage for the NATO summit, said Melissa Stratton, Chicago Police spokeswoman.

"As a law enforcement agency, we will enforce laws appropriately and accordingly to maintain public safety for residents, summit attendees and those wishing to exercise their First Amendment rights," she said in an e-mailed statement. But she declined to comment on the recent announcement that the police won't enforce the statute during the summit.

In contrast to the police, the State's Attorney's office has not said they will decline to initiate prosecutions under the law, Nekritz said. State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has been one of the biggest prosecutors of the eavesdropping law, according to Sharp. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office could not be reached for comment.

“I’m really confused as to why the Cook County state’s attorney office continues to prosecute under this law,” Sharp said. “Why they continue to back this is beyond me.”

In March, Cook County Judge Stanley Sacks became the second judge to rule the eavesdropping law unconstitutional. Crawford County Judge David Frankland ruled against the law in September.

The federal lawsuit in ACLU of Illinois v. Alvarez could be decided as soon as this summer. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Can We Tape?: Illinois

· News: Strict eavesdropping law ruled unconstitutional in Illinois case

· News: Ill. judge declares eavesdropping law unconstitutional

· News: Bill to rescind penalty for taping police officers fails, while state seeks to withdraw appeal in recording case