Reporter's Recording Guide
Last updated September 2019Compare
Alabama law sets criminal penalties for recording or disclosing private communication of others without the consent of at least one of the persons involved. The statute also bans secret observations while trespassing on private property, with or without recording.
Those divulging illegally obtained communications also face criminal penalties.
The state’s hidden camera law also has criminal penalties.Compare
The consent of at least one party to a communication is needed to record a private conversation. Ala. Code §13A-11-30. This means a reporter’s recorded conversation with a source would be permissible.
However, there is no need to obtain consent to record conversations held in public places, where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Ala. Code § 13A-11-30(2).Compare
Telephone and electronic communications
Alabama’s criminal eavesdropping law prohibits the use of “any device” to overhear or record communications without the consent of at least one party engaged in the communication being recorded. Ala. Code §13A-11-31.Compare
Intentionally engaging in secret observation — for the purpose of spying on someone, with or without recording or taking photographs — while trespassing on private property is considered unlawful “criminal surveillance.” Ala. Code § 13A-11-32.
The law, however, does not criminalize the use of any such recording devices positioned in areas to which the public has access (e.g., filming conversations on public streets or a hotel lobby).Compare
Unlawfully recording a conversation is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $6,000 fine. Ala. Code §§ 13A-5-7; 13A-5-12.
Criminal surveillance and disclosing information obtained through these methods are misdemeanors carrying a maximum jail sentence of six months and a fine of $3,000. Ala. Code §§ 13A-5-7; 13A-5-12. Installing an eavesdropping device on private property is considered a felony offense carrying a prison sentence between one and 10 years and a potential fine up to $15,000. Ala. Code § 13A-11-33.Compare
The statute does not authorize civil lawsuits against violators.Compare
A person cannot knowingly or recklessly divulge information obtained through illegal eavesdropping or surveillance. Ala. Code § 13A-11-35.
If a journalist received an illegally recorded conversation and was not involved in the illegal conduct, the First Amendment likely protects the publication of such material, to the extent it is a matter of public concern and truthful. See Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001). For more information, see this guide’s introductory chapter here.Compare
Right to record government officials in public
A growing consensus of courts have recognized a constitutional right to record government officials engaged in their duties in a public place. This First Amendment right to record generally encompasses both video and audio recording. For more information on the right to record broadly, see this guide’s introductory chapter here.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, has held that there is a First Amendment right to record matters of public interest, including the conduct of police occurring on public property. See Toole v. City of Atlanta, 798 F. App’x 381, 387–88 (11th Cir. 2019); Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332 (11th Cir. 2000).Compare