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Reeder: Dropping eavesdropping law a good move

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 8:59 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 9:11 p.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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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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