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Illinois court: Eavesdropping law unconstitutional

CHICAGO (AP) — The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday declared one of the nation's toughest eavesdropping laws unconstitutional, which will likely force state legislators to overhaul the privacy legislation.

The 1961 Illinois Eavesdropping Act, which made it a felony for someone to record a conversation unless all parties involved agreed, violates free speech and due process protections, the court decided in unanimous decisions in two related cases focused on audio recordings.

"We conclude ... that the recording provision of the eavesdropping statute, burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to serve a legitimate state interest in protecting conversational privacy," the court said in its opinion in People v. Melongo.

The justices took pains to say that protecting truly private discussions would be lawful, including because "the fear of having private conversations exposed to the public may have a chilling effect on private speech," Thursday's opinion in People v. Clark case said.

But as written, the Illinois law criminalizes recordings of conversations that are clearly public, the high court said. Under the law, it said, recording political debate on a college quad or fans yelling at a sports event could be deemed a crime.

"None of these examples implicate privacy interests, yet the statute makes it a felony to audio record each one," the justices wrote. "Judged in terms of the legislative purpose of protecting conversational privacy, the statute's scope is simply too broad."

The figure most closely associated with the challenge was Annabel Melongo, who was charged under the law four years ago for recording a Cook County court official. She spent more than a year in jail awaiting trial. Jurors couldn't reach a verdict.

The Cook County state's attorney's office appealed to the high court after a lower court dismissed charges against Melongo, who made the recording because she said the official wouldn't correct a mistake in the transcript related to her. She also posted the recording online.

In a written statement, Melongo's lawyer, Gabe Plotkin, hailed the court's decisions.

"Instead of serving as a shield to protect individual privacy, the statute was written so broadly that it allowed the state to use it as a sword to prosecute citizens for monitoring and reporting on the conduct of public officials," he said.

The legislature would have to draw up a new law that takes the courts finding into account, he added.

"The burden is now on the legislature to craft a statute that actually serves the goal of protecting privacy — and that does so without infringing on the rights of citizens to keep public officials honest," he said.

Neither the Cook County state's attorney's office nor the Illinois attorney's general's office, which filed the appeal in the People v. Clark case, had an immediate comment.


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