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posted: 3/27/2012 4:04 PM

Geneva schools' eavesdropping suit against ex-principal on hold

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  • Margaret Pennington

      Margaret Pennington

 
 

A lawsuit charging a former Geneva schools principal with illegally recording conversations with her supervisors has been postponed for the time being, pending the outcome of a challenge to the Illinois law on eavesdropping.

Kane County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Mueller granted the stay March 22.

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The attorney for defendant Margaret Pennington has argued Illinois law is "overbroad" and an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment speech rights. Lawyers for the school district disagree, but agreed to waiting for the results of the challenge to the law.

Mueller won't restart the case until the challenge in People V. Allison is decided by the Illinois Supreme Court. In that case, a Crawford County man in a dispute with public officials about an ordinance-violation charge against him secretly recorded police, prosecutors, court clerks and a judge. A circuit court judge agreed with Michael Allison's contention the law was unconstitutional for several reasons, including that the law subjects "wholly innocent" conduct to prosecution, and violates the First Amendment when it absolutely prohibits citizens from making audio recordings of public officials performing their public duties. The state has appealed.

Pennington was principal at Heartland Elementary School in the 2008-09 school year. District officials failed to notify her on time that they were not renewing her contract, so they moved her to a central-office administrative position.

The district sued her in March 2011, asking the court to compel her to turn over or destroy all recordings she had made of conversations with two of her supervisors, and with other staff members. The district contends the recordings were illegal because they were made without the consent of the supervisors, and that the supervisors had expressly refused her request to record their conversations.

Pennington has argued that the offices are public places, that public business was being conducted, and that the public has a right to record public officials doing public business. The district argues that government offices, such as the school district's administrative offices, "are not public places or forums where the public is free to disrupt the work of the government," and that what was said between the supervisors and Pennington was not "speech or conduct of public concern" and so not subject to the First Amendment.

Pennington has filed a federal lawsuit against the district, claiming she was discriminated against because of her age and her gender. She contends that younger, male principals hired at the same time as her, with less experience than her, were paid more. The next federal court date is April 6.

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