In a victory for the ACLU and First Amendment activists everywhere, the United States Supreme Court has denied a request to review a decision that blocks the enforcement of an Illinois law barring the public from recording police officers.
Back in 2010, the ACLU filed suit against a specific application of the Illinois Eavesdropping Act that made the audio recording or police officers a crime, punishable by a 15-year prison sentence. The lawsuit was initially rejected by the U.S. District Court who claimed that there was no First Amendement right to record on-duty police officers in public. But a May 2012 ruling by an appellate court reversed that ruling, allowing for an injunction blocking enforcement of the law.
"Even under the more lenient intermediate standard of scrutiny applicable to contentneutral burdens on speech, this application of the statute very likely flunks. The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests; as applied to the facts alleged here, it likely violates the First Amendment’s free speech and free-press guarantees," said the appellate court in the ruling.
But the Cook County State's Attorney wanted the Supreme Court to review that decision. Today, the Supreme Court has officially denied that request.
Here's the statement from the ACLU, who clearly believes that a rebuke of the Illinois law could have far-reaching effects for similar laws throughout the United States:
We are pleased that the Supreme Court has refused to take this appeal. Now, we can focus on the on-going proceedings in the federal district court. We now hope to obtain a permanent injunction in this case, so that the ACLU’s program of monitoring police activity in public can move forward in the future without any threat of prosecution. The ACLU of Illinois continues to believe that in order to make the rights of free expression and petition effective, individuals and organizations must be able to freely gather and record information about the conduct of government and their agents – especially the police. The advent and widespread accessibility of new technologies make the recording and dissemination of pictures and sound inexpensive, efficient and easy to accomplish.
While a final ruling in this case will only address the work of the ACLU of Illinois to monitor police activity, we believe that it will have a ripple effect throughout the entire state. We are hopeful that we are moving closer to a day when no one in Illinois will risk prosecution when they audio record public officials performing their duties. Empowering individuals and organizations in this fashion will ensure additional transparency and oversight of public officials across the State.
The Illinois law, while on the books, had been notoriously hard to draw a conviction from. Back in 2011, a jury acquitted a woman who had been charged with recording Chicago police.