ACLU Moves to End Chicago Mayor's 'Spying' on Reporters and City Officials

July 20, 1999 12:00 am

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CHICAGO, IL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today said it will ask a federal judge to order an end to using employees of the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to conduct surveillance on conversations between news reporters and members of the City Council and other city officials.

Official notice of this action was contained in a letter delivered by ACLU lawyers to City attorneys yesterday.

The Federal District Court has the authority to end this practice under terms of a 1981 consent decree in the case of ACLU v. City of Chicago, commonly known as the “spy suit” or “Red Squad” case. Under terms of that consent decree, City agents generally may not engage in surveillance of lawful activity protected by the First Amendment unless they have reasonable suspicion of a crime.

“Knowing their conversations are being monitored and reported to officials in the City Administration has an undeniable chilling effect on the free flow of information between elected officials and members of the media,” said ACLU of Illinois Legal Director Harvey Grossman.

“More importantly,” Grossman continued, “this activity denies the public a complete, free and open debate about a host of issues and policies that have a direct and dramatic impact on the lives of individual citizens. It is self-evident that such surveillance is not conducted in the public’s best interest. It is a cynical and unconstitutional use of City funds to attempt to monitor and to control what Aldermen say to the media.”

Reports that city employees have been monitoring press conversations with Aldermen and other City officials, and that the substance of these conversations are reported to the chief of the Intergovernmental Affairs Office, have circulated for some time.

They were publicly reported in a June 9, 1999, column by John Kass in the Chicago Tribune. Kass reported an incident in which his own conversation with Chicago’s Commissioner of Streets and Sanitation was monitored by a young employee of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs — identified as John O’Rourke.

According to the account by Kass, O’Rourke openly admitted both to the general practice of eavesdropping on conversations, including the media, and acknowledged that the substance of the particular conversation would be reported back to his superiors at the Intergovernmental Affairs Office. Kass further reported that most Aldermen were aware of the practice and one labeled the young employees of the Intergovernmental Affairs Office as “The Gestapo.”

The ACLU action to end the surveillance practice emanates from a consent decree between the City of Chicago and other parties — including the ACLU of Illinois — that was entered in federal district court in April, 1981.

Under terms of that consent decree, the City of Chicago promised to respect the First Amendment rights of all persons. The City also guaranteed that city agents, officials and agencies would only collect information about individuals’ First Amendment activities under strict controls, and solely for the purpose of conducting criminal or regulatory investigations, protecting dignitaries or insuring safety at public gatherings.

“We want the City of Chicago to live up to their sworn promise to a federal court not to engage in activity of this sort,” said Edward Feldman, ACLU cooperating attorney in the case and a partner in the law firm of Miller, Shakman, Hamilton, Kurtzon & Schlifke.

“We hear so much about ‘accountability’ from government — accountability for those charged with crime, accountability for those receiving public benefits and accountability for those who market products to the public,” Feldman added. “The citizens of Chicago ought to expect and demand the same accountability from the City of Chicago. They gave their word to a federal court. They should abide by those promises.”

In accordance with the provisions of the 1981 consent decree, the ACLU must wait seven days after serving notice on the City of Chicago before filing a petition for enforcement in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. That petition will go to Judge Ann Williams next week. It will ask the court to order the City of Chicago to stop the surveillance and to issue a declaration that the practice is a violation of the terms of the 1981 consent decree.

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