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Our view: Rewrite state eavesdropping law

Federal courts have said that Illinois’ prohibition on recording police officers in public is unconstitutional, and legislators should take the opportunity to rewrite the state’s eavesdropping law.

The general rule of thumb is, if you can be seen in public, you can be photographed in public.

However, in Illinois, if you can be heard in public, it’s a crime for someone to record your voice. Recording the voice of a police officer doing their job in public is considered a felony punishable by as many as 15 years in prison under the state’s eavesdropping law, passed in 1961.

That’s what happened in 2010, when two brothers from DeKalb took video and audio footage of police officers during a traffic stop at a McDonald’s.

Police viewed the video, heard their voices on the playback, and the two men were subsequently charged with felony eavesdropping, although they eventually pleaded guilty to a less serious eavesdropping charge.

The law against recording police is not enforceable at the moment. In May, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the law violated the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

Although some legislators have suggested that throwing out the penalty for recording police should make the law acceptable, what’s needed is a law that takes into account modern technology.

Much has changed since 1961. Today, almost any random person on the street can have a video and audio recording device in their pocket. And there are many people who will take the lifting of the prohibition on recording cops as a cue to go sticking cameras in officers’ faces whenever they can. That’s not safe or acceptable.

Police have a dangerous job, whether they are performing a traffic stop, responding to a domestic violence incident, or on a foot or bicycle patrol. They are routinely confronted with suspects who are intoxicated, violent, or otherwise pose a danger to themselves and others.

Concern for public safety demands that police be unimpeded by amateur cameramen who might not know what’s best for their own safety in a potentially dangerous situation. Witnesses to crimes also would be less likely to cooperate with police if they know someone is sticking a cell-phone camera in their face while police are talking to them.

Perhaps a distance limit could be set for bystanders recording police activities, or a standard for impeding an investigation could be established.

What’s needed is a law that balances the rights of the public to record goings-on in the public sphere with the rights of police to be able to perform their duties safely and without distraction. People should have the right to record their encounters with police. But punishments should remain for people who would use today’s technology to create a nuisance, impede justice, or distract officers as they do their duty.

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