Ray of hope for Chicago artist

By Kaley Fowler

Chris Drew wanted to make a point about free expression. What he got was much more than he bargained for.

Arrested in December 2009 for peddling his art on Chicago streets and subsequently charged with tape recording his arrest—a Class 1 felony under the Illinois Eavesdropping Act—Drew has faced trial after trial since that fateful winter day. After almost two years of uncertainty, Drew’s charges may be thrown out entirely, depending on how the Illinois Supreme Court perceives the outcome of a recent Crawford County trial.

As initially reported by The Chronicle on Jan. 25, 2010, Drew set out on State Street on Dec. 2, 2009, to sell his art for $1 in protest of the city’s restrictions on vending artwork without a permit. City police arrested Drew for violating the law but soon discovered additional grounds to arrest him. Police found an audio recorder on Drew that he was using to record his arrest, a direct violation of the Illinois Eavesdropping Act.

Under one of the law’s many stipulations, it is illegal for citizens to record interactions with police—a “critical right,” according to Drew.

“They took a critical right away from us that allows us to have a chance in court to present our case properly,” he said. “Without it, we don’t have any opportunity to do so.”

Numerous challenges to the Eavesdropping Act have been filed in Illinois with one recently succeeding in Crawford County.

According to Drew’s attorney Mark Weinberg, a Crawford County judge recently declared the law unconstitutional in connection with a case involving Michael Allison. Allison, like Drew, faced prison time for audio recording interactions with police officers and court officials. All of Allison’s charges were dropped following the

judge’s decision.

Although the decision offers hope for Drew, the eavesdropping statute is still in effect in Illinois. Weinberg said the state of Illinois may appeal the decision in Allison’s case. However, he added, in the event that this does happen and the decision is still upheld by the Supreme Court, the law may be repealed altogether.

“It may take the Illinois Supreme Court many months to come to a decision,” Weinberg said, adding that everything is “up in the air” in regards to Drew’s case until the decision is made.

With his trial on hold, Drew is actively pursuing his initial agenda: the advancement of artists’ rights to sell their art on the streets of Chicago without a permit.

Drew creates and distributes free screen-printed patches around the city through his Art Patch Project. He devotes much of his time to this endeavor in hopes that he can “use art to gradually educate the public” about his cause.

Other street artists share Drew’s sentiment. Maria Wohadlo, a fellow street artist, is currently the only person in Chicago with a permit allowing her to vend her artwork on the streets. In an email, Wolhaldo said she hopes to contribute to Drew’s “educational process” through her art.

“There is the uphill battle to educate people about the pertinent issues, especially how ‘speech’ is not always text,” she said. “That visual art is indeed speech and is protected by the First Amendment.”