Artist’s day in court

By Darryl Holliday

by Vanessa Morton, Contributing Writer

Chicago artist Chris Drew continues to fight for his rights as he prepares to go back to court on April 4. When it comes to Illinois state laws, Drew is no stranger to challenging them.

It has been 14 months since he was arrested for selling his artwork without a license—a misdemeanor violation of Chicago’s peddlers license law—as previously reported in The Chronicle on Jan. 25, 2010. Though the misdemeanor has been dropped, Drew, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, has continued to work toward legislative change, despite the looming possibility of his imprisonment.

“Whatever they throw at me, I’m going to make lemonade out of it; I’m going to turn it into something positive,” he said.

After Drew was taken into custody, his story took an unexpected turn. Police found an audio recorder in his pocket that had secretly documented his arrest, which is a violation of the Illinois Eavesdropping Act.

The Eavesdropping Act, passed in 1961, was originally written to protect privacy rights by limiting how telephone conversations could be recorded. Drew’s recording of a public interaction with police led to his being charged with a Class 1 Felony, which carries a charge of four to 15 years in state prison.

The act prohibits any audio taping of people without permission and any videotaping of police. Drew and the ACLU agree the law is unconstitutional.

Inching his way toward a trial, an optimistic Drew said he and his legal team have been preparing for more than a year now.

“The whole legal process can take a long time and there have been various delays along the way,” he said. “I have feelings both ways. There are a lot of possibilities in this, a lot of uncertainties in this, so I’m kind of eager to have the trial at this point.”

Adam Schwartz, an attorney for the ACLU, explained there are two types of conversation that need to be kept separate when it comes to protecting the privacy of others. He believes it’s important to distinguish a non-private from a private conversation.

“The ACLU believes it’s important to protect the privacy of private conversations,” Schwartz said. “So we wish Illinois had a law, like other states have, that doesn’t extend to these non-private conversations.”

Drew agreed it’s important residents have the ability to record public servants in public places.

“If we can’t audio record what the police tell us, the police can tell us anything,” he said. “When we go to court and they tell their story and I tell mine and they’re different, they win. Because they’re the police, and their word is taken much more importantly than my word.”

According to the conservative Heritage Foundation’s senior legal research fellow, Brian Walsh, the legislature needs to revisit laws like the Eavesdropping Act that criminalize actions without criminal intent. Walsh also stated that the legislature should take in consideration the advent of so many hand-held recording devices.

“Somebody who records another person without intent to violate the law should not be prosecuted as a criminal and should not be punished as a criminal,” Walsh said.

Previous to his arrest, Drew spent most of his time campaigning against the peddlers license law and its restrictions.

He thinks the law is unconstitutional because it prohibits a person’s First Amendment rights to free speech by limiting where licensed peddlers can sell their goods and requiring all artwork to be seen first by the Department of Business Affairs.

“The city uses traffic control and public safety to justify the need for licensing peddlers and for regulating where speech peddling can occur,” Drew wrote in his blog. “If there is no traffic or public safety problem, the city has no rights to limit my speech.”

However, Walsh disagreed and said cities generally have a broad authority on public space to make decisions about how it can be used.

“So the idea that there is an absolute right to sell whatever you want, wherever you want, is not well-founded,” he said.

Walsh said Drew’s interpretation of the law as unconstitutional isn’t well-supported.

“[Drew] can certainly talk about it, but I imagine it’s the sales not the discussion of his art that’s actually prohibited,” Walsh said. “So it doesn’t sound like from the facts of the case that there is a strong free speech argument either.”

Facing jail time, Drew explained he has spent a long time coming to terms with it. However, he said he’s optimistic and believes his story will change the law one day.

“I’m excited at times; I’m angry at times, Drew said. “I’m a bit frustrated and maybe even a little low, but I’m going to turn this around, and the worse they do me, the better for the movement.”

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