Recently, a Federal District Court Judge, Suzanne Conlon, dismissed a challenge by the ACLU in Illinois that questioned the Illinois law that makes recording someone with their consent, on public property, a felony. Doing so can be punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. While this law applies to all recording without consent, it has been specifically used against citizens who record police officers.
Charges against individuals for recording police officers on public property are not uncommon. For example, Michael Allison from Bridgepoint, Illinois, faces potential prison time for recording on-duty Illinois police officers. Read about it in Reason’s, The War On Camera’s.
In Illinois, it is against the law to use any “eavesdropping device” to record a phone call or any conversation without the consent of all parties involve. This law has been in place for some time, and is among the strictest. Illinois is one of a handful of states with similar laws. To see if your state’s “wiretapping” laws, check out LibertyActivim’s state wiretapping law summary. According to the law, only audio recordings are against the law; video recordings are fair game. Of course, this law only applies to citizen’s who wish to record in public, not to law enforcement officials. For more on the Illinois wiretapping law, read the page at the Citi Media Law Project. There is also an additional summary of Illinois recording rights here.
While it makes sense for state’s to protect privacy by preventing audio and visual recordings of private conversations on private property, it seems irrational to require consent for anyone who might be present on public property. If we take a look at the expectation of privacy on public property, we can easily conclude that there is no expectation of privacy. If there’s no expectation of privacy on public property, what sense does it make to have a law that “protects privacy” on public land?
The law has been used primarily against citizens who record police officers on public property. I personally find it unsettling not only that one can’t audio record on public property without consent of all parties involved, but that we cannot audio record police officers. I think being able to record law enforcement is beneficial for the community because it adds transparency and accountability. It allows us to know what police officers are doing and make’s it easier to see abuses of power. Without the ability to record law enforcers, it becomes very easy for a rouge officer to break the law or otherwise abuse his power. Police abuse of power is already an issue; by making it even more difficult to track the actions of police officers we place ourselves even more within the hope that they are of good character.
Society should encourage audio and video recording of police officers and other public officials. We have the right to know what our “public servants” are doing and to keep them accountable. Furthermore, does not prohibiting of recording imply potential wrongdoing? While much of the time the officer may be doing his duty as he should, a police officer’s fear of the camera suggests that they may not want the public to know of their actions. What do they have to hide?
I am of the opinion that it should always be lawful to record police officers as party of our freedom of press and free speech. Doing so encourages accountability and discourages corruption and abuse of power. Though we in Illinois can still technically video record police officers (it’s only audio recording that’s illegal), it’s still very easy for a police officer to intimidate and make your turn off your camera under the guise of interfering with police or obstructing justice. Without the ability to lawfully record law enforcement, we suffering the risk of even more abuse of power.