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Editorial: Court rules wisely on eavesdropping law

In this photaken Feb 2 2012 cell phones are used record Henry Bayer executive director AFSCME Council 31 not pictured

In this photo taken Feb 2, 2012, cell phones are used to record Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, not pictured, as he is confronted by the Illinois Secretary of State Police, as other members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union protest in front of the governor's office, demanding that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pay them raises he has withheld, at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. In the era of smart phones and YouTube, many people have grown used to recording their lives, from fun moments with friends to tense encounters with police. Some have discovered the hard way that this can result in felony charges, for recording their arrest for peddling without a license, for instance, or taping police in a dispute about old cars on a lawn. Many more people could be introduced to the Illinois law in May when thousands of protesters and journalists head to Chicago for the NATO and G8 summits. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: December 28, 2012 6:19AM

The U.S. Supreme Court took an important step Monday toward lifting an unreasonable Illinois ban on people recording police officers on the job.

The justices upheld a lower court ruling that the state’s eavesdropping law violates free speech when used against people who audio record law enforcement officers.

Until now, Illinois had one of the stiffest anti-eavesdropping laws in the nation. Violators could be prosecuted for a felony and face up to 15 years in prison.

The law does contain an exception for people who believe police officers are breaking the law. But the exception wasn’t much use for Tiwanda Moore of Chicago, for example, who was charged with a felony for secretly recording police officers she thought were trying to discourage her from filing a complaint. Moore was aquitted last year, but she never should have been charged.

Technically, Monday’s ruling applies only to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit in 2010 against Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to block prosecution of ACLU staff members for recording police officers performing their duties in public places.

But lawyers say the courts are likely to apply it to all citizens. The case will now go back to district court, where a federal judge could make the injunction against the law permanent.

In an era when people are used to recording their lives with smartphones and seeing the results on YouTube, it’s time for the law — never a fair one, anyway — to catch up with reality.

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