Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

March 26, 2014

Overturned law means more transparency

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.

Back then, tape recorders were about as big as a shoebox and not readily used by the general public.

The ubiquitous nature of recording devices today has landed some folks in trouble when they have taken to recording government officials.

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 conversation on the Internet. And she was prosecuted.

Others have been prosecuted when they have recorded their public interactions with police officers.

And in a Kane County case, a man was prosecuted for recording a conversation between himself, an attorney and a judge.

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.

If a police officer isn’t saying anything inappropriate in an interaction with a citizen, she should welcome being recorded — it just verifies she is doing a good job.

The same goes for judges, politicians and other government functionaries.

Why not allow ordinary citizens to record their interactions with such people?

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.”

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