Civil Liberties

Federal Judge Says There's No First Amendment Right to Record the Cops


Federal District Court Judge Suzanne Conlon has dismissed (PDF) an ACLU challenge to the Illinois law that makes recording someone in a public space without their permission a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. As I've reported here, the law is used almost exclusively against people who attempt to record on-duty police officers. The ACLU was seeking declarative and injunctive relief to prevent the police from arresting workers and volunteers who planned to record police at an anti-war protest this spring.

As I wrote in my feature story, "The War on Cameras", there's a strong argument that this is a newsgathering function protected by the First Amendment. But Conlon doesn't agree.

The ACLU has not alleged a cognizable First Amendment injury. The ACLU cites neither Supreme Court nor Seventh Circuit authority that the First Amendment includes a right to audio record. Cf. Potts v. City of Lafayette, Indiana, 121 F.3d 1106, 1111 (7th Cir.1997) ("there is nothing in the Constitution which guarantees the right to record a public event" '). Amendment would therefore be futile….

The ACLU intends to audio record police officers speaking with one another or police officers speaking with civilians. The ACLU's program only implicates conversations with police officers. The ACLU does not intend to seek the consent of either police officers or civilians interacting with police officers. Police officers and civilians may be willing speakers with one another, but the ACLU does not allege this willingness of the speakers extends to the ACLU, an independent third party audio recording conversations without the consent of the participants. The ACLU has not met its burden of showing standing to assert a First Amendment right or injury….

Amendment would be futile. The ACLU has not alleged a constitutional right or injury under the First Amendment. Rather, the ACLU proposes an unprecedented expansion of the First Amendment . . .

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, commenter "Jeff" makes a good point:

Why don't we look at the issue from the other side? Is it within the state's power to prohibit a citizen from recording a law enforcement officer in this way?

I know we tend to think of rational basis review as a rubber stamp, but these laws seem to be a stretch under any standard. Of course, it's almost impossible to argue that this isn't rationally related to some asserted purpose, but one could argue that the asserted purpose is merely pretextual, and that the real purpose is impermissible.

The government can certainly provide a rational basis for forbidding the recording of private conversations without the consent of all parties. But it would be interesting to hear the state's rationality for requiring the consent of anyone whose voice might be picked up before making recording in a public space. What interest does that law serve? Certainly not privacy, given that there's no expectation of privacy in public spaces.

I suspect we'll be seeing more from this case, as well as more challenges to the Illinois law, particularly if/when Christopher Drew and Michael Allison become the first people convicted under it. To this point, the law has been used primarily to harass and arrest people who record police in public. The charges are inevitably dropped or downgraded to misdemeanors before the case gets to trial.

MORE: Just to clarify, the Illinois law only applies to audio recording. So security cameras, which generally don't include audio, aren't in violation of the law. If you used an application on your smart phone that only recorded video, you could also presumably record police without being arrested under this law, although they could always arrest you for interfering with a police officer or some other catch-all charge. The Illinois law also includes an exception for law enforcement, so police recordings without permission of the person being recorded are permissible.