CHICAGO (AP) — A federal appeals court in Chicago granted a preliminary injunction Tuesday to block the enforcement of Illinois’ eavesdropping law, handing a victory to activists who feared recording police during this month’s NATO summit could land protesters behind bars for years.

The law, enacted in 1961, makes it a felony for someone to make an audio recording of a conversation unless all parties agree and sets out a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison. Its constitutionality has been challenged, and with the NATO summit set for May 20-21, activists had worried that protesters and bloggers could run afoul of the law if they used smartphones or video cameras to record police responding to demonstrations.

“The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said in its opinion. “As applied to the facts alleged here, it likely violates the First Amendment’s free speech and free-press guarantees.”

The ruling stemmed from a 2010 lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to block Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez from prosecuting ACLU staff for recording police officers performing their duties in public places, one of the group’s longstanding monitoring missions.

“To make the rights of free expression … effective, individuals and organizations must be able to freely gather and record information about the conduct of government and their agents especially the police,” said Harvey Grossman of the ACLU of Illinois.

He noted that with new technology, it is easier than ever to record and disseminate images and audio recordings.

“Empowering individuals and organizations in this fashion will ensure additional transparency and oversight of police across the state,” Grossman said.

© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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