ACLU seeks end to Chicago mayor’s spy tactics

Friday, July 30, 1999

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has asked a federal judge to order Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to end his practice of using employees to conduct surveillance on conversations between news reporters and city officials.

Such eavesdropping, the ACLU contends in a court petition filed in U.S. District Court yesterday, has a chilling effect not only on the work of the press but on the democratic process as well.

“Part of the press' job is to talk to legislators and find out their concerns and opinions,” said Edward Feldman, a Chicago-based attorney coordinating the ACLU's efforts in this case. “That process is chilled when the mayor, who has substantial power in Chicago, has ears everywhere.”

The ACLU's petition asks the court to order Daley's office to end the eavesdropping under the terms of a consent decree reached in 1981 in the case of ACLU v. City of Chicago. This decree in the so-called “Red Squad” or “spy suit” case put an end to similar claims of Daley secretly monitoring press interviews.

Under the agreement, city officials cannot engage in any type of surveillance of protected First Amendment activity unless they have a reasonable suspicion of a crime.

Although ACLU officials say reports of city employees monitoring press conversations with public officials abound, they didn't file a new petition in the lawsuit until after a June 9 article by Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass.

In that column, Kass detailed how a young city employee listened in on a recent interview the columnist conducted with a city official at Chicago City Hall. Kass, who was interviewing the city's sanitation commissioner at the time, said the employee worked for the mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Kass declined to comment to the First Amendment Center, referring instead to his columns on the subject dated June 9, July 20 and 21.

In those columns, Kass noted that the city alderman referred to the nearly dozen employees of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs as “The Gestapo.” He agreed that everyone, including the employees, has a right to attend and monitor public conversations.

“But when people are having private conversations off to the side, and the spies show up with their rabbit ears and their note pads, the eager, pink-faced kids are in the business of political intimidation,” Kass wrote.

Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the Mayor's Law Office, said the mayor received an official notice of the ACLU's intent to file the petition last week as required by the decree. But Hoyle said that because the office hadn't received the actual petition, there could be no immediate comment.

“Their notice last week didn't give us enough information to coordinate any kind of response,” she said.

Feldman said the ACLU simply wants Chicago officials “to live up to their sworn promise to a federal court not to engage in activity of this sort.”

“We hear so much about 'accountability' from government,” he said. “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.”