Is a law that forbids videotaping a police officer unconstitutional?
Jan. 6, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
Imagine you are on a crowded street. Ahead you see a commotion, and find out that someone is being arrested. You think that the person is being handled roughly so you decide to get out your phone and catch a video of the arrest. And if you were in Illinois, you, too, would be accused of breaking the law.
Chris Drew found this out firsthand when he recorded a police officer arresting him for selling street art without a license in December 2009. The unlicensed sales were a minor infraction, but recording the arrest is considered a class-one felony in Illinois, punishable by 15 years in prison.
Drew got a break when Cook County Circuit Court Judge Stanley Stacks ruled the law unconstitutional and issued a temporary injunction that barred Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez from prosecuting anyone under the law.
Stacks said the law was too vague. He wrote in his decision: “The Illinois eavesdropping statute potentially punishes as a felony a wide array of innocent conduct. For example, a juror using an audio recorder to record directions to the courthouse for jury duty given by a police officer would be in violation of the statute.”
The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police argued that the law protects citizens and keeps them safe. After the ruling, the organization released a statement saying, “By allowing the audio/video recording of witnesses and victims without their knowledge or consent, there will be a chilling effect on witnesses coming forward.” The state FOP added, “There will be victims who are re-victimized. And, there will be tragic split seconds, where a pointed cellphone will be mistaken for a pointed gun.”
Not all police in the state agree with the law. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has voiced his support for repealing the law. He said in a WBBM interview that the law protects the police as much as it does citizens. He said that barring people from videotaping police who are making arrests makes it easier for someone to file a frivolous brutality suit against the police. “There’s no argument when you can look at a videotape and see what happened.”
The legal battle over the law didn’t end there. Arguing that the law violates First Amendment rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, which states as its mission “to defend and preserve the individual rights guaranteed to every person,” sued Alvarez, Cook County state’s attorney, in federal court.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union, stating that the law was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court refused in November 2012 to hear the case, meaning the appeals court ruling stands.
What do you think?
What do you think of the Illinois law that barred someone from videotaping police? Do you agree with the judge’s ruling that it’s too vague? Or do you agree with the state FOP’s arguments? Did the Supreme Court make the right call by letting the 7th Circuit’s ruling stand? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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