Remembering Chris Drew: Chicago Free Speech Artist and Civil Rights Activist

This past Monday, the City of Chicago lost one of its greatest free speech activist, Chris Drew, who passed away on May 7, 2012. And though Drew finally lost his fight with the ravages of cancer, he did not, however, lose his several year battle with the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois in his quest to bring awareness to 2 laws that he found antithetical to creativity and liberty in America.

The law that Drew was originally protesting was Chicago’s Peddler’s License Law. The other, and much more serious law, is the Eavesdropping Act of Illinois.

Under Illinois state law anyone recording a judge, attorney general, state attorney or police officer can be sent to jail for up to 15 years, and under the Eavesdropping Act, which applies in 12 states, all parties must consent to a recording being made.

The State of Illinois pressed charges on the Eavesdropping Act offense, and as reported by the UK’s Daily Mail, when Drew heard of this, he said “I expected to be charged with a misdemeanor…I didn’t know about the eavesdropping law. But when you fight for your rights, you have to expect anything. I have a ’60s bent to me. I won’t back down. I won’t be intimidated.”

Drew, who was the founder of the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center in Chicago, was arrested on December 2, 2009, while he was out on the streets of Downtown Chicago selling small silk-screened patches for $1 each. At the time, Drew said he was expecting to be arrested and taken into custody by police—being charged with a misdemeanor. It was a deliberate act of civil disobedience, he said, that seemed essentially harmless. But when he discovered that he was actually being charged with a felony, and was facing up to 15 years in jail, Drew was nothing short of outraged, and vowed to do everything he could to challenge the state’s indictment.

As told by fellow artist and videographer, Nancy Bechtol, who has covered the Drew case from the beginning:

Dec. 2, 2009, Chris was selling art patches, for $1, as part of the FREE SAM, (Free Speech Artists Movement) He was arrested for peddling without a license, and peddling in a prohibited district. But the shocker came when at the police station, an officer found a small personal tape recorder in his red cape. The charge of Class 1 Felony Eavesdropping was added, with a bond of $20,000. At his first court appearance the misdemeanor charges of selling art in public without a peddlers license and in an area prohibited by the peddlers license were dropped. To the surprise of many, including Chris, there is a law in Illinois which appears to cover a person [‘s] audio recording their own arrest. Others have been charged under this law as well.

Fighting the legal arm and bureaucracy of Chicago and Illinois weighed heavily on Drew, says Bechtol, however Drew’s efforts have not been in vain.

Drew was able to gain international attention for his cause, including the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Excerpts from the following 2 articles—published yesterday and today—attest to Drew’s habit of speaking out for the right to free speech, and to the power of his on-the-street advocacy.


Chicago Barred From Prosecuting ACLU for Taping Police

May 8, 2012 – A U.S. appeals court in Chicago barred Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez from prosecuting members of the American Civil Liberties Union for making audio recordings of the city’s police officers in the line of duty.

Today’s ruling, which reinstates a 2010 lawsuit filed by the ACLU’s Illinois chapter, comes 12 days before the third- biggest U.S. city hosts a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit. A protest march is already scheduled.

“The Illinois eavesdropping statute restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests,” the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago said in a 2-1 decision. Read more.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Court orders ban on enforcement of Illinois eavesdropping law

May 9, 2012 – A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the controversial Illinois law prohibiting people from making audio recordings of police officers in public “likely violates” the First Amendment and ordered that Cook County prosecutors be prevented from enforcing it. Read more.

Chris Drew was a man bold and strong enough to speak truth to power. For that he will be forever remembered as a beacon of justice in the ongoing pursuit for artists rights and free speech.