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Illinois School District Drops Controversial Eavesdropping Case Against Former Student

Authored by Austin Berg via IllinoisPolicy.org,

Prosecution lawyers for an Illinois school district have decided not to move forward with their case against Paul Boron, who was charged with felony eavesdropping at age 13 for recording audio of a meeting with his middle school principal.

Paul Boron no longer has a potential felony hanging over his head. But Illinois’ eavesdropping law means others like him might not be so lucky.

The young Illinoisan spent his summer at the center of an international media stormafter his school district pressed felony charges, alleging a then-13-year-old Boron violated the state’s eavesdropping law by recording audio of a meeting with his principal.

On Nov. 15, however, the lawyers prosecuting the Manteno Community Unit School District No. 5 complaint dismissed the indictment at a hearing at the Kankakee County Courthouse.

The Illinois Policy Institute funded Boron’s legal defense with assistance from online donations. Institute Senior Fellow David Camic coordinated the defense.

“I’m just relieved and elated to know my son won’t be mislabeled as a felon,” Boron’s mother Leah McNally said. “We are beyond grateful for all the help and support.”

Boron’s case is yet another chapter of controversy surrounding Illinois’ eavesdropping law, which is among the nation’s most severe.

The incident

As an eighth grader at Manteno Middle School, Paul Boron was called to the principal’s office Feb. 16, 2018, after failing to attend a number of detentions. During the meeting with Principal David Conrad and Assistant Principal Nathan Short, he announced he was recording audio on his cellphone.

Boron said he argued with Conrad and Short for approximately 10 minutes in the reception area of the school secretary’s office, with the door open to the hallway. When Boron told Conrad and Short he was recording, Conrad allegedly told Boron he was committing a felony and ended the conversation.

Two months later, Boron was charged with one count of eavesdropping – a class 4 felony in Illinois.

An assistant state’s attorney for Kankakee County wrote in the petition to bring the charge that Boron “used a cellphone to surreptitiously record a private conversation between the minor and school officials without consent of all parties.”

Terri Miller, president of the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, thought the district was wrong to bring the charge due to the chilling effect on students seeking to expose wrongdoing.

“What child is going to come forward and try the same thing?” she said after being notified of Boron’s case. “It will have a deterrent effect on children to report, to speak up when something is wrong.”

Further, First Amendment advocates and other legal experts think the state’s eavesdropping law could be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.

The law

Boron is far from the only one snagged in Illinois’ eavesdropping law for seemingly harmless behavior.

Christopher Drew, an artist arrested for selling artwork on a Chicago sidewalk in 2009, was charged with a felony for recording the incident. Bridgeport resident Michael Allison was charged with a felony in 2010 for recording his own court hearing after officials failed to provide a court reporter. Also in 2010, Chicagoan Tiawanda Moore was charged with a felony for recording conversations with Chicago Police Department investigators regarding her sexual misconduct complaint against an officer.

At the heart of each of these cases was Illinois’ status as an “all-party consent” state. Essentially, recording a variety of common interactions unless all parties consented could be deemed a felony offense. Meanwhile, federal law and a majority of states allow for one-party consent.

In March 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down Illinois’ eavesdropping law, holding that it “criminalize[d] a wide range of innocent conduct” and violated residents’ First Amendment rights.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling state lawmakers in December 2014 passed a new eavesdropping statute, including changes aimed at explicitly allowing residents to record police, for example. But the new law kept the “all-party consent” provisions intact and introduced a vague standard for when a person must get consent for recording.

Specifically, the new law made it a felony to surreptitiously record any “private conversation,” defined as “oral communication between [two] or more persons” where at least one person has a “reasonable expectation” of privacy.

Boron’s case raises a number of questions critics pointed out in the debate surrounding the 2014 law. Namely, when does someone have a “reasonable” expectation of privacy? And is it fair to expect Illinoisans to know where to draw that line in their everyday lives?

Illinois prosecutors have proven all too willing to bring charges for a variety of innocent-seeming conduct under the state’s eavesdropping law. And without action from Springfield, it’s unlikely Boron will be the last one caught in its crosshairs.